With so much focus on COVID-19, it’s hard to remember we must still take precautions to prevent other infectious diseases. But this year’s influenza season is right around the corner, and flu vaccinations this year are particularly important.
We can anticipate ongoing challenges with COVID-19 in Arizona and elsewhere, and we continue to discover new information about this disease nearly every day. However, we don’t yet know how being infected with both the COVID-19 virus and the influenza virus will affect us.
We do know that kids are at high risk to suffer complications of influenza and we can assume this risk might be increased by COVID-19. Also, COVID-19 has caused huge burdens on our healthcare system, which have affected availability and timing of services. So, anything we can do to reduce our chances of having to go to the hospital or doctor’s office for a sick visit is going to reduce our chances of being exposed to additional viruses (like the novel coronavirus), experiencing long waits and adding to the burden on our healthcare system. Being vaccinated against influenza is a necessary step in this direction.
Who should be vaccinated?
To be most effective, everyone in your family should be vaccinated. This includes all children who are 6 months of age or older; all adults, including those older than 50; all pregnant women; and anyone living with a chronic condition or immunodeficiency. In fact, young children, older adults and people with existing conditions are at even higher priority to be vaccinated than everyone else.
The only requirement for vaccinations is to be older than 6 months of age. Children ages 6 months to 8 years who have never received an influenza vaccination will need two shots, given at least four weeks apart. The rest of us need just one dose of vaccine.
What to know about this year’s vaccines
This year’s vaccines provide protection against four strains of influenza that are expected to cause disease in the U.S. in 2020-21. The vaccines have been modified this year to better protect against those strains of the flu: Influenza A (H1N1), Influenza A (H3N2), and two strains of Influenza B.
The available vaccine products contain inactivated, recombinant or attenuated influenza components. The attenuated vaccine (meaning one including live virus elements whose virulence has been reduced) is named the Live Attenuated Influenza Vaccine (LAIV). The only one given by nasal spray, it is also the only vaccine product that should not be used in pregnant women, people who are immunocompromised, and people with severe asthma. Everyone can receive an inactivated or a recombinant (genetically modified) vaccine safely.
Most side effects from the shot are mild, and include sore arms at the injection site and occasionally some mild feelings of fatigue and malaise. Some people think they will get the flu from a vaccination, but this is impossible. They are instead experiencing a really strong, and protective, immune reaction to the vaccine which can feel a lot like the flu but thankfully only lasts a day or two.
Does vaccination mean you won’t get the flu?
Getting the influenza vaccine does not guarantee you will be completely flu-free. However, if you are infected with influenza, the vaccine will make it very unlikely for you to get severely ill. This is especially important this year because of the unknown risks of dual infection with influenza and COVID-19.
When should you get vaccinated?
Arizona’s influenza season typically begins in later October and peaks anywhere from late December to early March. September is the earliest month to consider being vaccinated against the flu, because protection from the vaccine will be super-strong before the onset of the flu season and will last throughout the expected flu season.
Ideally, everyone should be vaccinated no later than the end of October. However, anyone can still be vaccinated at any time if there is still flu activity in the state. The Arizona Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends contacting your child’s pediatrics provider now to schedule influenza vaccinations and ensure flu protection is in place before the start of the flu season.
Meet the pediatrician
This article was written by Dr. Sean Elliott, who retired from the University of Arizona after a 20-plus year career during which he served as a professor of pediatrics, associate chair for the Department of Pediatrics, pediatrics residency program director, director of infection prevention for Banner University Medicine-Tucson, and interim associate dean of curricular affairs for the University of Arizona College of Medicine.
Dr. Elliott earned his M.D. from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1993, followed by a pediatric residency at Children’s Memorial Hospital, Northwestern University School of Medicine, and a fellowship in pediatric infectious diseases at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, Washington University School of Medicine. He was recruited to the University of Arizona College of Medicine in 1999.
Dr. Elliott has now returned to his first passions: providing pediatric subspecialty clinical care and teaching at the bedside. The COVID-19 pandemic has called him back to the role of content expert and consultant to healthcare systems in Arizona, and he is happy to bring the current state of evidence to this important discussion. He also is personally invested in the ongoing discussion about returning to in-person school, as his life partner is a high-school teacher in one of the most under-resourced and high-risk high schools in Arizona.