Should Your Kids (and You) Get the Flu Shot or Not?

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There is no question that flu shots save lives. But for various reasons—largely urban myths and rumors—many parents fear the flu shot. Should your kids (and you) get the flu shot or not? To help you decide, here are some important facts to consider about the flu and the influenza vaccine.

The flu shot is free in almost every province—and easy to get.

In Ontario we are lucky to live in a unique health-care environment, being the first jurisdiction in the world to advocate and pay for universal flu vaccines. Anyone can get a flu shot at nearly all drugstores in the province, at a walk-in clinic, or your doctor’s office. Most other provinces also have universal, free flu shots—exceptions are BC, Quebec, and New Brunswick, which offer free vaccinations only for certain groups, like children, seniors, and pregnant women.

Getting the flu is dangerous — especially for kids.

Despite this widespread availability of the flu vaccine, we still see approximately 12,200 flu-related hospitalizations and 3,500 flu-related deaths in Canada, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

The most susceptible age groups to influenza are seniors age 65 and kids under age 5. Babies who are younger than 2 years of age and kids with chronic health conditions such as asthma and diabetes are even more vulnerable.

Notwithstanding the discomfort your child experiences from the flu, complications can make having the flu a nightmare. Ear infections, sinus infections, and pneumonia can develop. Asthmatics can worsen. And very occasionally we see children with infections involving their hearts (myocarditis), brains (encephalitis), and spinal cords (transverse myelitis).

Flu vaccines are safe, with few side effects.

Doctors approach any medical intervention by statistically analyzing the benefits of an intervention against any risks it may entail. If the benefits significantly outweigh the risks, then we advocate that intervention. You cannot get the flu from a shot, but you can get a sore arm and/or fever. Serious side effects from flu shots are very rare, affecting approximately 1 person in every 1 million vaccinations.

Some people have concerns about the preservative thimerosal (considered safe), which is present in multi-dose vials of flu vaccine. The majority of OHIP-covered vaccines are stored in multi-dose vials, with the exception of Influvac, which is available in pre-filled, single-dose syringes. Not every pharmacy or clinic will have it in stock, so you will need to inquire. Nasal spray vaccines do not contain thimerosal.

A nasal spray flu vaccine is an option.

Flu vaccine in nasal spray form (FluMist) is available for children and youth ages 2–17 free of charge in Ontario, B.C., and Quebec. You may be able to buy it from a pharmacy where it is not covered by a public immunization program. The nasal spray does not contain thimerosal, it avoids an injection, and is effective. (Editor’s note: Despite 2016 data in the U.S. that showed very low effectiveness, intranasal flu vaccine effectiveness remained consistently high in Canadian studies and the nasal spray vaccine is again recommended by the CDC in the U.S. for the 2018/19 flu season.)

Kids need two shots the first time.

Children under age 9 who have never received a flu shot should receive two doses, one month apart. Otherwise, one shot (or nasal spray) is all that is necessary.

You can get sick after vaccination (but not from vaccination).

Flu viruses are living things that are constantly changing, which means vaccines have to change every year, too. Researchers must make the best guess as to which flu viruses will be most predominant in the upcoming flu season. Also, some flu viruses are more difficult to fight than others. Due to these factors, as well as issues of timing (no one knows exactly when a flu virus will spread), influenza vaccination is not 100% effective. But vaccination does generally reduces the risk of illness by about 40% to 60%.

Remember that there are many viruses out there and the flu shot will not stop a child from getting colds or influenza strains that are not included in the vaccine. The vaccine takes about two weeks to become effective once it is given, so you can get the flu if you are exposed to a flu virus shortly after vaccination.

When is the flu season?

Flu season usually begins in November or December and ends 14–16 weeks after it starts, usually in March or early April.

Influenza is a serious disease, affecting millions of people every year. Patients often tell me they have never had the shot and have never had the flu, so why do it now? I say they’ve been lucky. We are lucky to live where we do, in a province with free vaccination and outstanding health-care authorities who guide your doctors to give you the best possible advice. Speak to your doctor. Protect your children.

For more information: Ontario Ministry of Health Flu Facts

This article was originally published in 2011 and was updated in 2018 after the 2017/18 flu season.

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