Why everyone should get the flu shot—even babies and pregnant women

What you need to know if you've never taken your family for flu shots before.

Photo: iStockphoto

Photo: iStockphoto

When flu clinics open, my family will be first in line. As I write, my toddler is a lethargic, snotty mess with a rattling cough. My husband and I don’t look much better. It was a rough night for the whole family, punctuated by unsettled fever dreams, midnight Tylenol doses and pathetic whimpers for water.

This is why we’ll gladly roll up our sleeves and take a shot in the arm to prevent a repeat occurrence during the rest of the flu season.

But not every family is quite so sure about getting the flu shot. Here are some things you should know if you’re on the fence, or if you’ve never gotten one before.

Should pregnant women get the flu shot?
Yes, pregnant women should get the flu shot. Studies haven’t shown any safety concerns for pregnant women who get the vaccine. However, getting influenza while pregnant, especially in the third trimester, can have serious complications for both mom and baby. The flu shot also helps stop new moms (along with new dads and other family members, for that matter) from passing the virus to the newborn.

Can babies get the flu shot?
Yes, if your baby is older than six months. Children who are between six months and nine years, and who are getting the flu vaccine for the very first time, will need two doses to increase effectiveness, about four weeks apart. Babies will get a lower dosage because of their smaller body weight, but will still need two doses. You may want to check ahead to ensure the clinic you are going to stocks the correct types of flu shots, appropriate to the ages of your kids.

When my daughter got the flu shot for the first time last year, this meant one needle at a public flu clinic and a second one, by appointment, at a public health unit about a month later.

Does the flu shot cost money?
All provinces and territories fully fund flu shots for babies between six and 23 months of age. Ditto for pregnant women in their second and third trimesters, since they are considered high-risk. Check with your province to see who can get the flu shot for free—here is a handy chart. Some provinces, like Alberta, fully fund flu shots for everyone. Others, like Quebec, cover only high-risk groups.

Should I ask for the nasal mist instead of a needle?
A nasal mist vaccine, approved for those between the ages of two and 59, is available in Canada this year. It’s sprayed right up the nose, no needle required.

“It’s a decent alternative if people really, really don’t want to get the needle,” says Chris Sikora, the medical officer of health for the Edmonton region. However, the United States will not be using the nasal mist vaccine. Here’s why: Each year, Canada tracks how effective its influenza vaccine was. In 2015, Canada—as well as Finland and the United Kingdom—found the flu mist vaccine to be effective. The US did not—but they were outliers.

“The US found that the flu mist vaccine did not have good protection, particularly with the H1N1 strain of influenza,” explains Theresa Tam, an infectious disease doctor and Canada’s deputy chief public health officer. “For Canada, though, and the UK and Finland, our studies showed a different picture. We found this vaccine was 46 to 58 percent effective in preventing influenza in children. We do not know exactly why the US has a different result.”

Canada makes recommendations based on its own data, not what happened in the US, which means the nasal mist got the green light to continue to be used.

Does the flu shot work?
Flu viruses shift and change, which means getting the vaccine right each year requires a lot of science, and a bit of luck. The World Health Organization keeps tabs on the flu virus strains circulating worldwide. This information is used to make vaccines that protect against either the three strains (a trivalent vaccine) or the four strains (a quadrivalent vaccine) predicted to be most common during the upcoming season.

“Somewhere in the middle of the flu season, we begin to get an estimate of success, but it depends on when the flu season starts,” says Tam. “Sometimes one strain begins and another one comes at the end. Different regions of Canada can also have different strains circulating.”

In Canada, the 2015-2016 flu shot was at least 60 percent effective in preventing the flu strain H1N1. The Canadian Sentinel Practitioner Surveillance Network found the 2016-2017 flu shot was 42 percent effective in preventing the flu.

What about natural flu remedies?
Cod liver oil. Green juice. Essential oils. Daily doses of vitamins from A to Z. There’s always someone offering advice on so-called “natural” ways to prevent the flu. But, you’re better off saving your money, says Sikora. “The bulk of those natural remedies have limited effect.”

What does work? The flu vaccine. That, and good hygiene practices, which also help prevent transmission of the common cold and all the other respiratory illnesses that circulate this time of year. That means lots of hand washing, teaching kids to cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze, and staying home from work (and keeping kids out of school or daycare) when illness strikes.

Remember that, for those with a healthy immune system, influenza means a few uncomfortable days in bed with a fever, aches and pains and a bad cough. But for others, it can be deadly. “Influenza is a serious disease,” says Sikora. “Last year, it put 1,600 people in hospital in Alberta and over 60 people died.” People at high risk of complications from influenza should definitely get a flu shot, especially anyone who has a chronic health condition like diabetes, or heart and lung conditions.

“We suggest everyone take the opportunity to be immunized, not just for yourself,” Sikora says. “It really helps keep your whole family healthy—young and old.”

Read more:
Nasal mist flu vaccine: Still a go in Canada
The working parents guide to dealing with sick kids
Why I always give my child a flu shot

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