Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Science says flu shot is a safe bet

Dr. Michael Camardi

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About Dr. Michael Camardi

Dr. Michael Camardi is a geriatrician at Carilion's Center for Healthy Aging. Age Matters is his new Roanoke Times column, appearing the third Tuesday of every month.

Camardi has been with Carilion for about three years and was one of the experts who reporter Beth Macy spoke to for her series, “Age of Uncertainty.” He wanted to start this column to help answer questions he’s often heard as part of his job.

Camardi was founder and past medical director of the geriatric liaison program for Jacobi Medical Center (Albert Einstein College of Medicine) in Bronx, N .Y.

Camardi trained at Winthrop University Hospital (Stony Brook University Medical School), where he was chief medical resident. He has received numerous commendations for his contributions to education, patient advocacy, community relations and hospital administration.

If you have questions for Camardi, please mail them to him at Center for Healthy Aging, 2118 Rosalind Ave., Roanoke, VA 24014, or e-mail them to extra@roanoke.com with “Age Matters” in the subject line.

Dear Dr. Camardi:

Does the flu shot make you sick?

Now I know what you doctors say about getting the flu shot every year. But I swear that when I do, I seem to get sick from it and I know a lot of other people who say they get sick from it, too.

And isn't the shot just another way for doctors and drug companies to make money? A lot of people I know say it screws up folks all the time and it's all just a big scam. I'll listen to whatever you have to say.

- Roanoke

Influenza is a very serious infection that can lead to hospitalization and death in those too weak to recover from the assault upon the body's immune system. In any given flu season, up to 90 percent of those who succumb to the flu virus will be over age 65.

Truth be told, there have been a few years where I did feel ill around the time after I received the shot. While the vaccine is made from an inactivated version of the three strains of virus of what will put us at risk, the science does not support the idea that the vaccine can make one sick.

Let me be clear: A patient can feel ill from the shot "taking" or stimulating the body's immune system to protect us, but it will not cause the actual flu to attack our body.

These feelings can range from soreness at the injection site, a low-grade fever and general body aches รข? and yes, it feels like the flu! But it is short-lived.

Also, patients can have an allergic reaction to some component of the vaccine, including a reaction that may result in one patient in a million vaccinated contracting a rare muscle disease call Guillain-Barre Syndrome. Yet, these concerns have never stopped me from getting the flu shot and never will.

I've had the flu - more than once - and to possibly feel ill from the vaccine is more acceptable to me than gambling that I will not get the flu. And yes, I have had the flu even after taking the shot, but I still accept the vaccine. In fact, I take every shot available to me to protect my health.

As we discuss this issue, let's all agree that there are few clinical absolutes in medicine, and exceptions to common belief always exist. Everything we try to do in caring for a patient entails risk of some kind - from side effects to treatment failure. So any time we introduce something to the body, we are really witnessing a type of experiment to see if it is going to work for the benefit of the patient or not.

Doctors take this responsibility very seriously by thinking through what we offer patients before we administer it to them and making sure we avail ourselves of as much of the current knowledge available before we do so. Yet modern medicine cannot control every variable the human body may possess. So knowing all this, why take the risk at all?

Because after analyzing the situation, the chance to support our health by introducing a chemical to the body that may protect it is worth the risk of being made sicker by doing it or not doing anything at all. The field of immunology has made great strides in protecting our health, but the flu is a difficult disease to prevent.

The first issue is that the flu season can vary in its duration ranging from October to May, during which we may see up to 35,000 flu-related deaths.

During this period, a patient taking the flu shot needs up to two weeks to develop immunity and during that time, one could catch the flu.

One common misunderstanding is that the flu shot gives a patient blanket protection from other diseases that seem like the flu, such as bronchitis or a stomach virus.

Again, the vaccine is effective against only the specific virus it has been produced to combat. Even then, the virus can mutate and we are back to somewhere around square one. Still, if the virus does mutate, having taken the flu shot will lessen the severity and duration of the illness.

All this said, getting the flu shot still can lower hospital admissions for the flu by up to 80 percent in some studies.

As for it being a money-making vehicle for doctors and pharmaceutical companies, the system doesn't work that way. Health care professionals get paid to take care of the ill, not the healthy.

When a person takes the appropriate steps in preventive medicine to safeguard their health, they are helping to bring down the cost of health care.

So please take the shot, as I really don't need the extra work!

Dr. Michael Camardi is a geriatrician at the Carilion Center for Healthy Aging and an assistant professor of medicine of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. His column runs monthly in Extra.

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