Why Flu Vaccines Fail and What to Do When They Do
Medical Science is aware that flu vaccines can fail. Why get a flu shot if you can still get the flu? That is a complex question. It’s important to be informed about diseases that can affect our health. We are our own patient advocates when it comes to our health and our family’s health. Our goal is for our local families to be informed, especially when certain illnesses like the flu can result in serious, life-threatening complications.
What You Need to Know About Vaccines in General
Humans are vulnerable to bacteria and viruses that can make us sick. Over recorded history, there have been stories about plagues going back to Biblical times. Sometimes these illnesses wiped out whole populations of people. The very first thing that we learned about regarding certain diseases was that they were transmitted by exposure to a sick person. This resulted in quarantining sick people to keep them away from healthy people. It was difficult to do, especially when the sick people were the very young or elderly who relied on family to survive.
The first successful vaccine was in 1797 for Smallpox, a disease we know little of in modern times. Smallpox plagued man since 10,000 BC. British Physician Edward Jenner is well known around the world for his innovative contribution to immunization and the ultimate eradication of smallpox. Jenner’s work is widely regarded as the foundation of immunology. (Riedel 2005) There is an obvious benefit to being vaccinated for smallpox. The last known case was recorded in India in 1975.
History of the Flu Vaccine
In 1938, American virologist and epidemiologist Thomas Francis Junior (1900-1969), together with Jonas Edward Salk (1914-1995), managed to protect USA military forces with the first flu vaccine. Salk would subsequently use this successful experience to develop an effective polio vaccine in 1952. (Barberis 2016)
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
We are fortunate to live in a country where we have access to information, most of it now online, about diseases and prevention. Our federal government oversees the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also known as the CDC, who is tasked with monitoring communicable diseases. They also research and regulate cures and public information for diseases that we know about, and those that are yet to come.
To attest to the severity of the flu virus and to mitigate the risk to people, the CDC has created an awareness program around the flu and flu vaccinations. National Influenza and Immunization Week (NIVW) happens each year at the beginning of December which is when we start seeing an increase in flu reports. There are several YouTube videos by the CDC that talk about the flu – how to know if you have it, the value of getting a flu vaccine and who is most susceptible to getting the flu. It’s important to stay educated.
Here is one of the videos you can watch to increase awareness.
3 Things to Know About Flu Season
When and Why Flu Vaccines Fail
Every year, CDC scientists engineer a new flu virus. By examining phylogenetic relationships (evolutionary relationships among biological entities – often species, individuals or genes), which are based on shared common ancestry and relatedness, researchers identify virus strains to target with a vaccine for the following flu season.
Sometimes, they do a good job predicting which strains will flourish in the upcoming flu season; other times, they pick wrong.
Andrew Pekosz, PhD, is a researcher at Johns Hopkins Medicine who examines why we fail to predict strains to target with vaccines. In particular, he examines years when the vaccine was ineffective and the viruses that were most prevalent to identify properties of these strains. With the speed at which the flu virus evolves, and the fact that numerous strains can be active in any given flu season, engineering an effective vaccine is daunting. (Haurin 2019)
The statistics on flu vaccine effectiveness are just not where we want them to be yet. With a current 40-60% effective immunity, it’s not enough to let our guard down.
Critical Signs You Need Emergency Care
This second video by the CDC gives examples of flu symptoms that warrant immediate emergency care.
If you have symptoms of the flu as described in the Critical Signs video, it’s time to head to the nearest hospital emergency room.
We want to ensure that you have the best possible care when experiencing flu symptoms and will do everything possible to minimize the discomfort of your symptoms. Our Board-Certified ER Doctors are trained to test for the flu virus and to prescribe the best possible medical intervention. We want to be sure you get on the road to recovery quickly.
During past seasons when vaccine viruses were antigenically “like” most circulating viruses, vaccine effectiveness in the range of 40% to 60% has been observed. This means that people who get vaccinated may still get sick, but they are about half as likely to get sick as someone who was not vaccinated.
Another important thing to remember is that vaccination may make illness less severe in people who get vaccinated and still get sick. In general, people who get vaccinated are better off than people who do not get vaccinated. It’s important to remember that things can change very quickly with flu and we could still see significant circulation of resistant flu viruses this season. (CDC 2020)
When the Flu Vaccine Fails, We Don’t
Whether you’ve had a flu vaccine or not is not the issue. The issue is to make sure you are correctly diagnosed and treated. One family member can quickly spread the virus to other family members. We are prepared to minimize the dangers of the flu virus with you and your loved ones. You can count on us when the flu vaccine fails.
Riedel, Stefan. “Edward Jenner and the History of Smallpox and Vaccination.” Proceedings (Baylor University. Medical Center), Baylor Health Care System, Jan. 2005, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1200696/.
Barberis, I, et al. “History and Evolution of Influenza Control through Vaccination: from the First Monovalent Vaccine to Universal Vaccines.” Journal of Preventive Medicine and Hygiene, Pacini Editore SRL, Sept. 2016, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5139605/.
Haurin, Sarah. “How the Flu Vaccine Fails.” Medical Xpress – Medical Research Advances and Health News, Medical Xpress, 23 Apr. 2019, https://medicalxpress.com/news/2019-04-flu-vaccine.html.
“Frequently Asked Influenza (Flu) Questions: 2019-2020 Season.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 27 Dec. 2019, https://www.cdc.gov/flu/season/faq-flu-season-2019-2020.htm.