We’re just getting in to flu season and it’s important that we know how to protect ourselves, or limit our chances, of getting the influenza virus this year. One way of doing so is getting the flu vaccination. Despite the clear benefits of getting a flu jab, there are lots of misconceptions. Here, I bust five flu vaccine myths…
1. Flu is just a ‘bad cold’ so the vaccine is not important
Last winter, 133 people died from flu in the UK and over 1000 were admitted to intensive care or high dependency units in hospital. Flu is not simply a bad cold; we wouldn’t go to the trouble of a national vaccination programme for just a bad cold.
Flu is a serious viral illness causing fever, muscle aches, fatigue and illness for around 10 days. In vulnerable groups it can be life-threatening as the figures from last year show. Vulnerable groups who are recommended the vaccination include those over 65, pregnant women and anyone with chronic lung, heart or liver disease: if you are in these categories the vaccination is offered free in your GP surgery or pharmacist.
2. The flu vaccine gives you flu
People have told me that they’ve contracted flu from the vaccination. This is a common myth that circulates. The truth is, you can’t catch flu from a flu jab and there is a very simple reason for this: there is no working virus within the vaccination. Some vaccinations are indeed ‘live’ – they have tiny amounts of the active virus in them which your body recognises encouraging your immune system to create the protection against that virus. However, the flu vaccine is not a live vaccine but rather it contains inactive parts of the flu virus; this is enough for your immune system to recognise and effectively be tricked into making the protective antibodies. But the inactive virus is not capable of actually giving you the illness flu.
People can have side effects from the jab such as muscle aches and even a mild temperature for a day or two. If you do get flu after a flu jab, it is likely you were already coming down with it before the jab or you picked something up in the doctors’ waiting room.
3. Children are only vaccinated to protect others
Over the last few years, the UK has followed other countries and started to recommend routine flu vaccinations to all children. We now have school-based programmes offering the children the vaccine from Reception to Year 4. Younger children can have it at their GP surgery. For all kids this is not an injection but thankfully a nasal spray that most children don’t mind. It is true that children are considered to be ‘super-spreaders’ of the flu virus – they pass the infection around their families and communities because of the way children play so closely, their touchy-feely behaviour with family and their hand hygiene – or lack of! So, by vaccinating children, you are stopping them spreading it around – particularly to the more vulnerable people such as grandparents.
However, it is not just for the community benefit; children under five years are more likely to be hospitalised due to flu than any other age group. In 2016-17, the nasal flu vaccine reduced the risk of flu by 66% in children which is a very significant benefit. Flu is a serious illness and children are one of the vulnerable groups: the vaccine is protecting them as well as others.
4. I’m allergic to eggs so I can’t have a flu jab
There is some truth in this, but not completely. The flu jab that is usually used is made using eggs in which they cultivate the virus parts. That does mean that people who are genuinely allergic to eggs may react to it. However, there are egg-free and low egg content vaccinations available for those who need it. If you are recommended a flu vaccination and allergic to eggs ask your GP surgery to arrange this for you.
We know that around 60,000 kids in the UK have an egg allergy – however the safety committee for vaccinations has advised that all children with an egg allergy can safely have the nasal flu vaccine because the egg content is known to be very low in this one. The only exception is children who have had such a bad anaphylactic reaction to eggs that they needed intensive care treatment.
5. Adult flu vaccines contain toxic mercury
They absolutely do not. This is a common myth often perpetuated online and is quite simply a misunderstanding of the science and the facts. There is a preservative called thiomersal which is mercury-based which has often been used in the manufacture of certain vaccines. Thiomersal contains a substance called ethyl mercury which has been shown not to accumulate in the body, even in babies, and is passed out via your bowels. The toxic mercury we talk about is actually another type of mercury called methyl mercury which is known to accumulate in our food chain, for example in fish, and in human bodies.
Both the World Health Organisation and the European Medicines Agency have stated there is no evidence of any risk from thiomersal. And to add to this, the simple truth is the current flu vaccines used annually in the UK do not contain thiomersal anyway – it is occasionally used in flu vaccines for outbreaks such as swine flu.