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Flu shot gave you the flu? It's a myth

Too many people avoid the vaccine, experts say. And that little needle is a small price to pay for avoiding serious illness.

November 03, 2003|Shari Roan | Times Staff Writer

It seems that a sizable number of people -- 38% in one group of older adults -- still believe the influenza vaccine can give you the flu.

It can't. Doctors are in widespread agreement on this. Influenza virus is made from dead virus, which means it is not capable of launching an infection in your body.

Nonetheless, physicians and other health-care workers know they'll hear whining this year from patients who fear getting the flu shot they need. Now that the vaccines are recommended for babies, such unfounded worries become even more serious -- they could prevent some of the most vulnerable from getting the protection they need.

The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the flu shot for people 65 and older; children 6 months to 23 months old; anyone with a chronic health condition; health-care workers; anyone near a child under the age of 2; and women more than three months' pregnant. The agency also urges all other healthy Americans to consider getting the vaccine.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 07, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Flu shots --An article in Monday's Health section listed categories of people for whom the influenza vaccine is recommended. The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends vaccination for healthy people age 50 to 64 and for anyone who wants to prevent the flu. Those groups were not listed in the article.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday November 10, 2003 Home Edition Health Part F Page 9 Features Desk 1 inches; 69 words Type of Material: Correction
Flu shots -- A story last Monday on the influenza vaccine listed the categories of people for whom the vaccine is recommended. The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends vaccination for healthy people age 50 to 64 -- and anyone who wants to prevent the flu. These groups were not listed in the story because their risk of complications is not as high as older people.

"There is a prevailing myth that the vaccine causes the flu, and it bothers me," says Dr. Richard Kent Zimmerman, an associate professor of family medicine and clinical epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh. "It particularly bothers me because, in the 1990s, there were 36,000 deaths annually in the United States from flu. We were fortunate we've had a couple of milder years since then, but we may not have a mild year this year."

Zimmerman is the author of the study of 1,383 people, age 66 and older, which found that 38% of unvaccinated people feared that they would get the flu from the vaccine. Among the vaccinated people in the study, published in January in the American Journal of Medicine, only 6% believed the myth.

According to the CDC, the flu shot can cause only mild symptoms such as soreness in the arm, a low-grade fever and body aches.

"You would not get a cough, runny nose, congestion or sore throat," says Jeffrey A. Goad, an assistant professor of clinical pharmacy at the USC School of Pharmacy. If you develop more severe symptoms, you probably contracted a virus about the time you received the flu shot, Goad says.

Because the elderly are more likely than other age groups to develop a low fever from the flu vaccine, they often are more reluctant to get the shot, says Stella Henry, a nurse and founder of the Vista del Sol Care Center in Culver City. Officials at the skilled nursing and assisted living center have promoted flu vaccination in recent years, because flu deaths most often occur in the elderly.

"We certainly experience residents who, after they have the shot, get a slight temperature," Henry says. "But we're pretty pro-flu vaccine. I start talking about it in August. If an elderly person gets the flu, they really get sick."

Thelma Zigler, a Vista del Sol resident in her late 70s, got her flu shot a few weeks ago. She says she once feared the vaccine too. But in the 1960s, while operating a drugstore with her husband, a doctor in the office next door to the pharmacy walked in one day, syringe in hand.

"Everyone back then said, 'Don't take it; you'll get sick,' " Zigler recalls. "But the doctor said, 'I want you to have a flu shot. You take care of my patients, and I don't want you getting sick.' I've had one every year since, and it has never made me sick. But some people make up their mind that it's going to make them sick, and you'll never change it."

Some people may skip the vaccine -- not because they're afraid of getting sick from it -- but because they're afraid of needles. But this year they have no excuse.

For the first time, healthy people ages 5 to 49 can opt for the nasal spray flu vaccine called FluMist (approved by the Food and Drug Administration in June). One dose is required, except for children ages 5 to 8 who need two doses six weeks apart.

But there is an important difference with FluMist: It is made from a weakened strain of live flu virus, and thus could cause side effects that are a bit more pronounced than those associated with the flu shot.

"It's harder to predict what will happen with FluMist because it hasn't been used in millions of people," says Goad. "In studies, there were some side effects, like a runny nose. Since it is a live vaccine, it may cause more symptoms like fever, chills and headache, even a little sore throat and cough. But it shouldn't cause the flu. The FDA approved it because it was very safe and had a low occurrence of side effects."

The vast majority of Americans lining up for flu vaccines this year will receive the shot, including the newest group considered a "high risk" for influenza -- babies ages 6 to 23 months.

Last month, a CDC advisory committee recommended adding annual flu shots to the childhood immunization schedule. The CDC still must formally enact the recommendation, but many doctors are expected to comply this year with the change.

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