History shows flu shots are worth the pain

Wellness | Safety | September 27, 2018
Getting a shot gives you the best shot at staying well

These days, getting your annual flu shot is meh. Right? You know it’s important. You don’t want to get sick. And you’ll get one because it’s the right thing to do.

But have you ever considered what life was like before the flu vaccine?

It’s hard to imagine there was once no such thing as flu shots, especially now with “get your flu shot” signs almost everywhere you go.

While getting your vaccine can be a pain, it’s far superior to going without, according to Margie Tessin-Mason, RN, an infection preventionist for PeaceHealth.

Flu epidemic of 1918

Just look at history. This year marks 100 years since the flu epidemic of 1918, which infected more than 500 million people worldwide and wiped out more than 50 million lives. While it was called the “Spanish Flu,” experts believe it started at a military base in Kansas.

Back then, World War I was still playing out and there were massive changes in how and where people traveled. Troops were being sent around the world. Railways and ocean liners were carrying more and more people every day.   Cities attracted people who were trying to  flee from the war, as well as those who sought to help in the wartime efforts.woman receiving a flu shot

Headlines of the day tell some of the story. “Downtown Stores Ordered to Close at 3:30 P.M.” and “Drastic Rule to Combat Influenza” and “Auditorium Now Hospital” and “Crowds are Under Ban.”

“It was the only time in recorded history that we had a decrease in the world population, especially those in the prime of their lives (17-65 years of age),” Tessin-Mason said. Only the black plague in the 1300s claimed more (approximately 75 million) and that was over a longer period of time.

Since then, the biggest change has been the introduction and use of the flu vaccine, she said.

First flu vaccine in 1933

In 1933, with memories of the 1918 pandemic still fresh, the influenza virus was first isolated and countries quickly worked to develop a vaccine. By World War II, the first flu vaccine in the U.S. was given to military troops with a public vaccination program following.

Could another epidemic like the one in 1918 happen again?

woman giving flu shot to girlAccording to Tessin-Mason and the infection prevention department at PeaceHealth, an epidemic of influenza happens annually. But because of advances in flu vaccines and flu care, our modern-day “epidemics” aren’t as deadly as 100 years ago. (For comparison, about 80,000 Americans died as a result of flu during the 2017-2018 flu season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

Still, infection control specialists keep sharp eyes on flu viruses. The genes of influenza viruses can go through small changes, but our immune systems can often recognize and respond to the slight difference. But if a virus goes through an abrupt, large change (“antigenic shift”) like it did in 1918, few—if any—of us would have immunity.

Stay vigilant

Tessin-Mason said vigilance is key. It’s very important for healthcare providers to work together with public agencies to actively monitor how, where and when the disease occurrence in humans, domestic animals and birds. That’s in addition to strong vaccination and education programs as well as properly funded research. (Check out this crowdsourced service that helps track flu activity in the United States.)

Is there anything that hasn’t changed since 1918 when it comes to preventing the flu?

You can’t go wrong with these old-school (grandmother-approved) steps to avoid or reduce the spread of the flu:

  • If you’re sick, stay home
  • Cover your cough
  • Wash your hands

Visit the health library for more flu-related tips

If you're ready for your flu shot this year, you have many choices. You can get a flu shot at your PeaceHealth clinic. Some offices offer walk-in options while others require an appointment.person who is sick with flu

Many retail stores and pharmacies also offer shots. If you get your shot there, let your provider know to update your health record.

Find a flu shot clinic near you.