Getting the flu isn’t fun. You feel awful immediately, stay in bed for a few days with a fever, cough, aches and pains. But you eventually get better and go back to your daily routine.
For some people, however, influenza is a matter of life and death. While the majority of healthy adults and children can fight the flu, adults over 65 years and children under five are at much higher risk of developing severe complications.
The Public Health Agency of Canada cites a US study that found adults over 65 years old accounted for 87.9% of flu-related deaths. It is also estimated that 13,200 Canadians are hospitalized yearly for influenza – and 3,500 of them die.
Systemic reviews have demonstrated that getting immunized against influenza can help spread the virus to vulnerable populations who, unlike you, may not be able to recover and go back to their daily routine.
Diella Juneau, a public health nurse at Beaverlodge Public Health Centre in Northern Alberta says, “We're working with vulnerable groups, in particular, little infants, pregnant moms, seniors and people with chronic illnesses like cancer, diabetes and heart disease. They're most vulnerable and most likely to succumb to complications such as pneumonia, hospitalization and death.”
Getting the flu shot doesn’t just benefit you, it protects everyone around you.
Not all health-care providers get their flu shots. Beckie Rudneski, a public health nurse at Peace River Community Health Centre, explains why some health-care providers opt out of getting vaccinated.
“A lot of them don't have faith in the flu vaccine. They think that it doesn't work, or they don't know what the strains are,” she says. “Many people also say they got sick after getting the vaccine. We tell them it takes two weeks for the flu vaccine to start working and they may have picked it up at a flu clinic, or they could have a different bug entirely."
Diella agrees with Beckie’s assessment. “Some people refuse the influenza vaccine because they say they get sick from it. Never do I hear from people that they got sick from a tetanus shot so it only stands to reason that the flu shot does not make you sick. Influenza and tetanus vaccines are both inactivated and are not live virus vaccines,” she says. “People are often misinformed about what influenza really is and they don't realize it feels like a truck has hit you. You're tired and achy and have a high fever and body chills.”
No one likes getting a needle. It’s time out of your busy day, your arm might get sore, swollen or red. You might feel achy and tired afterwards.
But you might also be saving the life of your 80-year-old patient. Or your friend’s newborn baby or grandchild. Or the asthmatic teenager who helps bag your groceries.
Flu vaccines are manufactured by using three or four recent strains of the influenza virus grown in eggs. Because the vaccine is developed specific to the current strains, getting it every year is necessary.
Once injected, the body recognizes that there is a virus present and creates antibodies over the next two weeks.
“It makes your body recognize those flu antigens and protects your body against them,” explains Beckie. “Your body recognizes it. If you're exposed to the flu, your body knows what to do and can combat it without you getting really, really sick.’”
Nothing is perfect; you can still get sick even after getting the flu shot, but it reduces your risk by half.
"You can get the flu shot and you can still get ill,” explains Beckie. “But you may be sick for only two or three days, as opposed to being sick for weeks on end."
And if you do happen to get the flu, minimize your contact with vulnerable populations while you are contagious.
“You're infectious starting one to two days before you have symptoms, and five to seven days after onset of symptoms,” says Diella. “If you have the flu, try to stay away from other people for a couple days, up to a week.”
Despite working in virus-ridden environments and being knowledgeable about the risks of infection transmission, many nurses and other health-care providers still see the annual flu vaccine as unnecessary for themselves.
“People, after even getting that information, they're like, ‘No, I'm good this year.’ They still don't want to,” says Beckie. “We tell them that it's the best. Really, besides hand washing and getting the flu shot, there's nothing you can do to prevent yourself from getting influenza.”
Ultimately, Beckie and Diella urge RNs to get vaccinated not just for themselves, but because of their duty to their patients and the public.
“Nurses are altruistic in so many ways. We have an obligation to do no harm. Essentially, the influenza vaccine falls in with that,” says Diella. “We have a moral and professional obligation to protect our most vulnerable patients. Nurses need to educate themselves about the influenza vaccine. The vaccine is safe. It's effective. Read up on it and get informed.”
CARNA supports employer policies of mandatory choice of influenza vaccination or wearing protective clothing for anyone working in health care. CARNA's position is congruent with the Canadian Nurses Association position statement on influenza immunization for registered nurses which states that policies that place immunization as a condition of service should be introduced if health-care worker influenza immunization coverage levels are not protective of patients, and reasonable efforts have been undertaken with education and enhancing accessibility to immunization.
By Kyla Stocks, Communications Coordinator
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/index.htm
Alberta Health Services: http://www.albertahealthservices.ca/influenza/influenza.aspx
Public Health Agency of Canada: https://www.canada.ca/content/dam/phac-aspc/documents/services/publications/healthy-living/canadian-immunization-guide-statement-seasonal-influenza-vaccine/naci-stmt-2017-2018-eng.pdf