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Vaccines: Safe and Needed

Doctors endorse flu immunization and other vaccines as safe

Doctors urge people to get their flu shot and other vaccinations, no matter what politicians say.

By Kevin McKeough

It’s that time again.

In a routine that now seems to take place each campaign season, politicians are making dubious claims about vaccines while public health officials urge people to get their shots.

During the main Sept. 16 debate among Republican presidential candidates, real estate mogul Donald Trump strongly maintained a relationship exists between vaccines and autism. Coincidentally, the next day the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention held a news conference to discuss this year’s influenza vaccine, which the CDC recommends for everyone six months of age or older.

"Get vaccinated," said Thomas Frieden, MD, MPH, the director of the CDC. "That's the best way to protect yourself, your family and your community against flu."

To help set the record straight on vaccines and why you and your loved ones should get them, Rush experts provide the following insights.

Vaccines are safe and don’t cause autism.

“Study after study after study has shown the safety of vaccinations,” says Renee Slade, MD, a physician in the Rush Pediatric Primary Care Center. “I am very disappointed that Trump and others are perpetuating myths.”

Nonetheless, a lingering belief among some in the connection between vaccinations and autism has contributed to some parents choosing not to have their children vaccinated. That choice in turn has led to outbreaks of disease among unvaccinated children, such as the spread of measles in Disneyland and a Chicago area day care center earlier this year.

“There’s no relationship between any vaccine and autism,” Slade says. “There was one study that claimed a relationship between the measles vaccine and autism that studied a small sample population.

“After it was published, it was learned that the main author had a financial incentive for the study to be published, and after more was learned about the study the other authors took their names off of the study. It also was debunked by many other studies that used larger groups of children.”

Not vaccinating children puts other children at risk.

“It always disappoints me when parents choose not to vaccinate their children,” Slade says. She notes that until children are a year old, they’re too young to be vaccinated for measles, mumps, rubella, varicella and hepatitis A. They’re potentially vulnerable to infection by an older child whose parents chose not to have vaccinated.

“It’s why herd immunity [achieving a sufficient number of vaccinated people to prevent the illness from spreading] is important,” she explains. “You want all the people in your community to be protected.”

Slade also notes that while most people develop strong immunity to the diseases for which they’re vaccinated, a small number (less than 10 percent) don’t. These people also are at risk if not enough people are vaccinated to prevent a disease from spreading.

Flu season is about to begin.

October marks the beginning of flu season, which runs through May and usually peaks in or after January. During peak flu season, more than 15 percent of the patients in Rush’s emergency department are there for influenza-like illnesses.

Flu can be a serious, even deadly, illness.

About 200,000 people in the U.S are hospitalized because of the flu every year, according to the CDC, and 36,000 deaths in the U.S. annually are attributed to influenza.

Flu is particularly dangerous to children and older adults, who have weaker immune systems to protect them from disease. Last year, 108 child deaths were attributed to the flu, according to the CDC.  

Even among healthy adults, flu at the very least will cause a person to miss work or school and will make you feel miserable for days. The symptoms include fatigue, coughing, sneezing, sore throat, runny nose and body aches, and maybe a fever, too.

Particularly harsh strains of the flu, like 2013’s H1N1 flu strain, also can have a serious impact on patients outside the high-risk groups, observes Yanina Purim-Shem-Tov, MD, medical director of clinical practice in the Rush emergency department. “Young and healthy people were dying due having an overwhelming immune response to the influenza virus,” she says.

Fortunately, protecting against flu infection is easy and inexpensive.

To protect yourself from the flu, you just need to get a flu vaccine shot. The best time to do it is early in the flu season, but a shot later on still will provide protection. Keep in mind that it takes about two weeks after the vaccination for your body to develop the antibodies that protect against flu.

The flu vaccine is readily available. Drugstores like CVS and Walgreens offer it, as do primary care clinics and physicians. It’s free for many people with insurance.

Unfortunately, most people still don’t get vaccinated. The CDC found that during the 2014-2015 flu season, only 59.3 percent of children and 43.6 percent of adults were vaccinated. Even worse, only 38 percent of adults 18 to 64 years old were vaccinated.

Most (but not all) people can get a flu shot.

The CDC recommends that anyone six months of age or older should get the flu vaccine. People who are allergic to components of the flu vaccine shouldn’t get the shot. Neither should people who have a history of Guillain-Barre syndrome. Although people with egg allergies have been told not to get flu vaccine in the past, the newest recomendations are that most most people with egg allergies can get the vaccine. If you have an egg allergy you should discuss your particular case with your doctor.

If you’re not one of those people, you can get a flu vaccine, and you should.

Purim-Shem-Tov notes that you cannot get the flu from the vaccine, a common misconception that still lingers. “If you get vaccinated, you’re most likely not going to get the flu,” she says. “So your own health does not suffer, and you also do not infect other people.”

Rush practices what we preach.

Rush requires all of its employees and faculty  to be vaccinated against the flu  exceptions are made in cases of religious objections or medical incompatibility).

“If you don’t get vaccinated, you’re in danger of getting sick and you’re also exposing other people to the same risk you have,” says Purim-Shem-Tov. “We make sure we are not contagious to other people.”

“I vaccinate my own children,” Slade says. “Everybody that I love and care about gets these vaccines. I don’t just recommend them to patients, I do them for my own family.”

For more information about the flu vaccine, please see “What You Should Know About the 2015-2016 Influenza Season” on the CDC website.

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