Paul Biddinger, MD, of Massachusetts General Hospital, firmly believes that everyone over 6 months old should get the flu vaccine and now.

How important is getting a flu vaccination? During last year’s influenza season, 164 American children died of the flu. That’s more than any season in the past decade with the exception of 2009-2010, when H1N1 spread quickly around the world. “It’s a tragedy that doesn’t have to happen,” says Paul Biddinger, MD, Massachusetts General Hospital’s medical director for emergency preparedness and director of operations for emergency medicine.

Paul Biddinger, MD, of Massachusetts General Hospital, getting his flu vaccination at an American College of Emergency Physicians event.
Paul Biddinger, MD, of Massachusetts General Hospital, getting his flu vaccination at an American College of Emergency Physicians event.

Dr. Biddinger is a firm believer that everyone over 6 months old should get the flu vaccine and get it now. Vaccination rates last season were up for all age groups, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported. But still, only 56.6 percent of children 6 months through 17 years old got vaccinated and only 41.5 percent of adults over 18 did.

“It’s a little like wearing a seat belt,” says Dr. Biddinger. “We don’t expect to crash each time we get in a car, but do it because the chance is always there.”

Regretting that Missed Shot

For most of us, the flu is not life-threatening. But it can easily spread to others, including loved ones, who might be more susceptible to serious complications of this viral infection of the respiratory tract, he points out. Those at high risk include seniors, children under age 5, pregnant women, and people with asthma, heart disease and other chronic diseases.

“The more of us who get vaccinated, the better protected we, our families, and our whole community is,” says Paul Biddinger, MD.

January and February are typically the peak flu months. Last year a public health emergency was called in Boston in January. Hospitals and emergency rooms were swamped with flu cases. “Many of us in the emergency department treated adults and children who likely thought they’d be fine without a flu shot, but ended up critically ill, hospitalized, and even intubated in order to breathe,” Dr. Biddinger recalls. “Many people who were severely ill regretted they hadn’t gotten the shot.”

This year there are more vaccine options and fewer excuses not to get it. For those who dislike needles, there is one with a needle that is 90 percent smaller. There’s a high-dose vaccine for seniors, who have a harder time developing resistance to the virus, which is the purpose of vaccines. One available vaccine takes into account four different strains of flu viruses that are circulating, in addition to the traditional three-strain version. Both include protection against H1N1, a flu virus that caused a worldwide pandemic in 2009 that now appears seasonally.

Flu Vaccination Campaign

As for other excuses, “I do still hear from people who they think they got the flu from the vaccine, but that’s not possible and definitely wrong,” says Dr. Biddinger. It is possible to have a sore arm or a fever reaction to the shot, or to get a cold or a stomach “bug,” which can be confused with flu. Flu comes on more suddenly and is more intense than a cold, often with high fever, body aches, a cough and/or sore throat, he says.

Internally, the hospital runs yearly staff vaccination campaigns as part of the effort to provide a healthy environment for patients.

To spread the word to the public about the importance of getting the shot, Dr. Biddinger records public service announcements. “Now is the time before the flu season hits to get vaccinated,” he says. It takes two weeks after the shot to develop immunity to the virus strains in the vaccine. Protection lasts six to eight months.

“The more of us who get vaccinated, the better protected we, our families, and our whole community is,” he says.

For more information about the seasonal flu, visit www.flu.gov, a federal government website with flu information, including what to do if you get sick.