17 December 2011

Make getting and giving vaccines a holiday tradition

I'm finally joining the#VaxDrive after being inspired by all the tweets and, especially, from Dr. Rubidium's post. Honestly, I was looking for something just like this to write about, because I've found myself completely disenchanted with this year's holiday season. It has become the season of buying junk for people who don't need it and receiving junk from people who have no idea what to buy for you. It's stressful, it's wasteful, it's expensive, and it's turned into a stupid tradition. Why not just skip it? Instead, save some lives, buy measles vaccines by clicking here. It only costs a dollar to vaccinate each child, or you can vaccinate a village for $500. A whole village!

Another thing: first, go get a flu shot yourself and, second, go help an older person (your mom, dad, grandma, or grandpa) get him or herself a high-dose flu shot. Why a high-dose flu shot? Why not just a standard dose?

Here's why: As recently as November, I attended the 2011 American Society of Consultant Pharmacists annual meeting in Phoenix and reported on a few of the "product theaters" at the event. A couple of the articles were published earlier this week in the December issue of Annals of Long-Term Care: Clinical Care and Aging (1). One of the product theaters I reported on was about new Fluzone High-Dose, which I'll discuss briefly about on this blog today. As reported in my article, "older adults make up about 15% of the U.S. population, but account for more than 60% of estimated 226,000 annual hospitalizations and 90 percent of the 3,000 to 49,000 annual deaths attributed to influenza and pneumonia." If an older person has other conditions, risk of death increases dramatically. This is where Fluzone High-Dose comes in, containing four times the standard dose, as the life-saving treatment of the future. Three clinical studies showed it raises antibody levels significantly higher than the standard dose in older adults. More antibody means better immunological response for beating back the flu.

What I left out of the technical article was just how colorful clinical pharmacist Frank Breve was in ridiculing people who believe in the myths suggesting that vaccines may be somehow dangerous. He, of course, brought up the history of the Spanish flu of 1918-1919, which killed off something like 30 to 50 million people worldwide and more than 675,000 people in the U.S. population (2,3). In only a few months, it was the worst epidemic ever in world history, killing more in a year than the Bubonic Plague and more than World War 1. Looking back at that history, it's hard to imagine why folks turn to believing in anti-vaccine literature.

The truth is, Breve said, people are just so far removed now from the threats of Spanish flu, measles, and small pox. It's easy to underestimate what a tiny virus can do. Then, based on myths of dangerous vaccine side effects, they refuse inoculation for themselves or their families. They might even claim that getting the flu naturally builds up their own immunity. Unfortunately, despite these anecdotes, refusing a flu shot can have devastating consequences -- especially if spread to the very young and the very old. The very young are more vulnerable to infection and complications because they may not be equipped with an immune system developed enough to handle infection. The very old are more vulnerable because their immune systems have weakened over time and don't respond to flu shots as well as in younger years. In these cases, the severest of complications could be death from flu or pneumonia.

Anti-vaxxers are quick point out that the concentration of mercury in the high-dose vax may be higher, Breve said. He dismisses these concerns by saying, "A multi-dose vax contains about 25 micrograms of mercury. A tuna fish sandwich contains 28 micrograms. What does that tell you?" He also said people raise concerns about side effects like Guillain-Baré syndrome. He responds by saying "the risk of Guillain-Barré syndrome is one in a million; the risk of dying from flu is one in 8,333. You decide." Lastly, when people tell Breve that they've heard stories about people getting the actual flu from a flu shot, he responds by saying "It's not true. It's impossible."

So don't be fooled; once again, get a flu shot, and make sure older loved ones get their high-dose flu shots. And, if you really want to make a difference by saving lives this season, here's the link again to American Red Cross.


1. Despain D. Product Theaters: Preventing Influenza With Fluzone High-Dose in Older AdultsAnnals of Long-Term Care: Clinical Care and Aging. 2011;19(12):17-18.
2. Regional History from the National Archives. The Deadly Virus: The Influenza Epidemic of 1918. Available at http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/influenza-epidemic/
3. Billings M. The Influenza Pandemic of 1918. Human Virology at Stanford [website]. June, 1997 modified RDS February, 2005. Available at http://virus.stanford.edu/uda/

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