The rumor going around the hospital right now is that this flu* season is unusually bad. My colleagues and I have definitely seen some pretty sick patients. When Burt Reynolds ended up in a Florida ICU with the flu, my patients started to take notice.
So how bad is the flu this year?
First of all, we don’t really know yet because flu season typically peaks in February (although you may have heard news reports saying the season peaked early this year). Here’s what I can say so far: the numbers coming back do not show that this year is any worse than previous years. The effectiveness of the vaccine can vary because this year’s vaccine is always made from last year’s virus. In fact this year’s flu vaccine is 62% effective, which is just about average. That means if 100 people get the vaccine, 38 of those could still get the flu. Compare that to the 2004-5 vaccine, which was only 10% effective; not too bad.
What if I have breast cancer?
I strongly recommend that my patients get the flu vaccine. Even patients on chemotherapy can get the flu shot. It is perfectly safe because there is no live virus in the shot. They should not, however, get the nasal spray vaccine. That one has live virus and could be dangerous for cancer patients on chemotherapy. If you are going to get chemotherapy, it is best to get the shot before the chemo starts in order to maximize effectiveness.
People who are allergic to the flu vaccine or to eggs should not get it.
So as far as we know, this year’s flu is no worse than any other. The bottom line is that every cancer patient should be vaccinated, especially those over 65. It’s not too late!
*What is the flu anyway? ‘The flu’ refers to a virus (influenza) that spreads in the air by coughing and sneezing. To get it, you need to be breathing within 6 feet of someone with the virus. It takes 3 or 4 days before you get sick, and when you do, the symptoms are usually fever, aches, and an overall lousy feeling, plus some upper respiratory symptoms like cough, sore throat, or runny nose. Flu can be fatal when it gets to the lungs, and unlike bacterial infections, we don’t treat it with antibiotics. There is a drug called Tamiflu, but it must be given very early in the disease or it is not effective.