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Q: Though your previous column said that the flu shot can't give you the flu, last year after receiving my shot I became severely ill for two weeks with what sure felt like the flu. I'm 53 years old but don't want to go through that again. If you're still going to get sick like this, what is the sense of bothering with the shot at all?
A: I understand your concern and will attempt to shed some light on this seeming riddle.
The most frequent side effects associated with the flu shot are local reactions such as temporary pain and swelling around the spot where the needle went in.
Systemic (bodywide) reactions to the flu shot have occasionally been reported. Such reactions typically produce fever, fatigue, muscle pain and other symptoms that begin about six hours after getting the shot and continue for a day or two.
What you report, however, sounds more like the actual flu and its aftermath. Since the flu shot contains killed viruses that cannot cause the flu, the most likely explanation is that you were exposed to the flu virus shortly before or during the "lag time." Lag time means that it takes about two weeks from the time you get the shot for your body to build up adequate defenses against flu viruses. During this interim period you can still get the flu.
Also, it must be said that the flu vaccine is not infallible. Each year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tracks flu virus strains worldwide in an attempt to reasonably predict which new strains will be circulating during the coming flu season. Based on this information, the agency recommends the makeup of that year's flu vaccine. When virus strains in the vaccine are well matched to actual virus strains circulating about, the flu vaccine has been determined to be 70-90 percent effective in preventing the flu among healthy adults younger than 65. Not perfect, but pretty good.
Coming down with the flu is pure misery, as you can attest. Added to this is the fact that flu-related complications claim an estimated 36,000 lives annually in the United States.
And it could be much worse. Scientists still warily look back over their shoulders to the great flu outbreak of 1918, when a deadly strain killed 20 million people worldwide. It's feared that another such killer strain could emerge at any time.
All told, protecting yourself from the flu is well worth it, so perhaps you will decide to give the flu shot another try unless your physician advises otherwise.
(Richard Harkness is a consultant pharmacist who writes on health care topics. You can write him at 1224 King Henry Drive, Ocean Springs, MS 39564. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Volume of mail prohibits individual replies; selected letters will be answered in his column.)
(c) 2003, The Sun Herald (Biloxi, Miss.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.