It’s time again for the familiar “Get the shot, not the flu” campaign. It comes every year around this time and we’re frequently reminded that it isn’t too late to get the flu vaccine if you haven’t taken advantage of the free campaign.
The flu vaccine is recommended by several Canadian public health agencies, such as the Public Health Agency of Canada, and by health professional organizations, such as Immunize Canada and the College of Family Physicians of Canada, because it’s safe, cheap and often works.
I regularly get the flu shot and I vaccinate my children, too. I know the vaccine doesn’t fully protect me or my family from the flu. It’s just one of the many strategies I use during flu season to keep us healthy, like frequent hand washing, adequate rest and a balanced diet.
Vaccinations are a touchy subject for many people, so here’s a snapshot of recent research to consider and why I choose to continue to vaccinate myself and my family every year.
Canada’s seasonal vaccine includes the three flu strains that scientists believe will be in highest circulation this season. It’s known as the inactivated seasonal influenza vaccine and is most commonly administered by needle. And now, a quadrivalent inactivated vaccine delivered by needle protects against four flu viruses.
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Canada also offers a nasal mist vaccine that contains a live attenuated set of the virus strains believed to be circulating this season. Live attenuated viruses are a weakened form of a live virus. Even though the virus is live, it doesn’t give you the flu because of its weakened state.
Until recently, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention preferentially the use of the live attenuated nasal mist vaccine for children aged two to eight because there was evidence it produced a better immune response than a needle-based shot. However, this live attenuated vaccine is not recommended for use for the 2016-2017 flu season for anyone in the American population. Instead, the recommendation in the U.S. is for the needle-based inactivated vaccines (in either trivalent or quadrivalent form).
By contrast, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization, the body that provides medical, scientific and public health advice about vaccines to the Public Health Agency of Canada, has a different recommendation. Canada used to recommend the live attenuated nasal mist vaccine for children, too. Now it’s just one option among others. The nasal mist vaccine is no longer recommended for preferential use but is offered alongside the needle options. Parents can generally select the option their kids might prefer.
Why are the policies different?
The U.S. made its decision after reviewing the evidence of how the nasal mist vaccine did in the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 flu seasons. They found it was less protective for people who got the nasal mist vaccine than those who got the needle-based vaccine.
Canada also reviewed the evidence but didn’t see the same patterns for its population. Annual surveillance helps ensure both countries offer vaccines backed by the best evidence possible.
There’s something else to consider this year.
One new study suggests that “serial vaccinators” – people who get the flu vaccine every year – may be at greater risk of getting mutated flu strains in the future. Because this is only a preliminary finding based on a single study, the recommendation in Canada from public health agencies is that the vaccine is still a good idea.
So what’s a parent to do?
That’s a personal choice.
We all know that the flu shot offers only partial protection at best, and in some years (like last year), the vaccine didn’t perform well.
But it does still work.
So after worrying, reading the recommendations of our public health bodies, comparing different reputable medical websites, talking to people who study this stuff and then combining all that, I return to square one: the flu shot isn’t perfect but it’s still worthwhile.
My kids and I were immunized against influenza again this year.
Michelle Driedger is a Professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the University of Manitoba.