The data is in.
In the spring of 2016, there was an outbreak of influenza (the flu) in Northeastern Ontario. Because Sudbury has the region’s tertiary Intensive Care Unit, we received the sickest patients: Some on mechanical ventilators because they could not breathe on their own; some in kidney failure; one with swelling of the brain — 21 patients altogether.
The ages varied from 27 to 81. Nine died. The vaccine would have prevented illness for 18 of these 21 patients, had they been vaccinated, which they were not.
Influenza is not a benign disease. It is ranked among the top 10 leading causes of death in Canada.
Consider one more statistic. Fifteen percent of people over 65, admitted to hospital with influenza, will lose the ability to live independently, requiring assistance with the activities of daily living: like bathing, grooming and walking.
Influenza vaccination is recommended for all individuals aged 6 months and older. There is particular focus on people with chronic diseases, pregnant women and people likely to transmit influenza to frail individuals.
Members of a household expecting a newborn during the influenza season should go for vaccination. In other words, we need to not only consider ourselves, but also the welfare of those we care about.
A spray for children is now available.
Yearly vaccination is required because the body’s response to flu vaccination begins to diminish within a year. In order to remain effective, the vaccine needs to be updated yearly in order to keep up with changing viruses.
It should be noted the incidence of influenza is often underreported since the illness may be confused with other viral illnesses. Many people with an influenza-like illness do not have diagnostic testing done.
So how many folks get vaccinated? In 2016, the Sudbury District Health Unit (SDHU) distributed approximately 61,000 doses to health-care providers. This works out to 43 per cent of the population in the SDHU district, if all those doses were administered.
Some of the patients who were admitted to our Intensive Care Unit with influenza, were followed up. They were asked if they plan to get the vaccine next year? Some said, “No.”
So the question remains: “Why are so many folks objecting to a vaccine that can prevent an illness that may cause serious disability and death?”
Maybe it is fear: Fear of autism; fear of Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS); fear of oculo-respiratory syndrome (ORS); fear of injecting foreign substances into our bodies. Maybe it is a distrust of science and the pharmaceutical industry.
Advocacy groups say that thimerosal, a preservative used in vaccines, is toxic to the central nervous system and responsible for the alarming rise in rates of autism among children. Over the last 15 years, a number of major medical institutions have reviewed the medical evidence and all have concluded that there is no link between autism and exposure to thimerosal.
What's more, the preservative was removed from most childhood vaccines in the United States years ago and influenza vaccine manufacturers in Canada are currently working towards production of thimerosal-free vaccines.
GBS is a rare but serious disorder in which the patient’s own body attacks healthy nerve cells. This leads to weakness, numbness and tingling. It can sometimes cause paralysis. Recent studies suggest the risk of GBS is about one per million vaccinations and that the risk of GBS, if you became ill with influenza, is larger than that associated with vaccination.
Oculo-respiratory syndrome (ORS), which is defined as the presence of red eyes with respiratory symptoms that start within 24 hours of vaccination, was found during the 2000-2001 influenza season. Few cases have been reported since.
Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent influenza and its complications. Weigh the evidence and then decide for yourself and for those you love.
To learn more about vaccines, read The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman.
Dr. Peter Zalan is president of the medical staff at Health Sciences North. His monthly column tackles issues in health care from a local perspective. If you have a question for Dr. Zalan, email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.