As an emergency department physician, it saddens me, but I have come to terms with the fact that some people get awful cancers. Or that car accidents can change a person’s life in a split second and trampolines cause the craziest fractures. What I have not been able to come to terms with is watching a young child struggle and turn blue as they are unable to breathe, or trying to care for an elderly patient who eventually dies, when the diseases they suffer from are ones that can be prevented by one of the safest things we do in medicine — routine vaccination.
As a parent, vaccinating was hard. Holding my young, perfect child and allowing a stranger to stick a needle in her leg and hear her cry was not easy. It was made worse by the drum beat from friends and comments on social media seeding doubts that maybe somehow I was harming my child. Before I could do it, I had to pull back, look over the science again, and know my desire to protect my child both compelled me to get her vaccinated and made me hesitant at the same time.
As a public health official, I am reminded daily of how the choices we make as individuals have profound effects on the health and well-being of our friends, our neighbors and those most vulnerable in our communities, especially when it comes to the spread of infectious disease. Besides access to clean water, I cannot think of a single action that can more deeply affect the health of our communities’ collective health than getting vaccinated.
So, as you can imagine, my family and I get vaccinated against the flu every year — and l will be doing all I can to encourage Alaskans to do the same. Flu vaccination is important for everyone six months and older, but is especially important for older adults, pregnant women, young children and those with chronic health conditions.
There will be plenty of free flu vaccine available throughout the state — the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services has ordered extra vaccine to ensure widespread protection. The best time to get your shot is by the end of October, but it’s never too late. Alaskans should get vaccinated well into 2021 or until flu season wanes, typically in March or April. It takes about two weeks for flu vaccine to become effective; immunity lasts through the season but starts to wane by the end of the season. There is no need to get a second vaccine later in the season if you were vaccinated early in the flu season, but you do need to get vaccinated every year. If you’re unsure about where to go, check with your health care provider, local hospital or clinic, Tribal Health Organization or Public Health Center.
This year, with COVID-19, getting vaccinated for the flu is more important than ever. A 2018 study showed that from 2012 to 2015, flu vaccination among adults reduced the risk of being admitted to an intensive care unit (ICU) with flu by 82%. That protects you, your family and those around you. If a bad flu season coincides with a spike in COVID cases, flu vaccinations are one way we can help to prevent our limited health care system from becoming overwhelmed.
Another reason to get your flu shot is that we don’t want anyone to get both the flu and COVID. Both are serious diseases that can take a toll on individuals and families and getting both could be particularly challenging to a person’s health. COVID is a new disease and there’s still so much to learn.
We know some people don’t get a flu shot because they don’t think it’s effective. Because the influenza virus mutates each year, the vaccine is developed new every year with multiple strains to be as effective as possible. Even so, flu vaccine effectiveness varies widely from year to year. Every year, we hope the vaccine prevents you from getting the flu, but even if do get the flu, you are likely to get LESS sick if you are vaccinated compared to those who are unvaccinated.
Other prevention tools we have to fight flu fortunately also fight COVID, so please keep washing your hands, staying six feet apart from non-household members and wearing a mask in public around others. We can do this, Alaska, and we’re in this together.
More information is available at these CDC and DHSS websites:
• DHSS Influenza page (www.flu.alaska.gov)
• CDC Influenza main page (www.cdc.gov/flu/index.htm)
Dr. Anne Zink, M.D., is a board-certified emergency physician and Alaska’s chief medical officer.