Feeling the pinch: Questions about this year’s flu vaccine and research on the COVID-19 vaccine

As the COVID-19 pandemic rolls into flu season, eyes all over the world are looking toward vaccines. Medical professionals are urging everyone to get the flu shot because the pandemic’s effect on flu season is still unknown. 

Even career scientists have questions about when and where to get their flu shot. There was a big debate on the flu vaccine on an online message board for early-career scientists. Some of the most common questions were:

  • “I heard you have to wait until October to get the flu shot if you really want its full protection benefits.” 
  • “The flu vaccine is sometimes only 50% effective anyway. What’s the point of going out of my way to get it if the effectiveness is just a coin toss?”
  • “I hate needles, I’m going for the nasal vaccine.” 

We talked to Dr. Angela Myers, MD, MPH about some of these burning questions. Dr. Myers is the Director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Mercy Kansas City, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine, and Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Kansas School of Medicine.

“I tell people to get the flu vaccine as soon as they have a chance. You may only visit your doctor once in the Fall and not have a chance to have another health visit.”

Dr. Angela Myers

Dr. Myers tells her patients never to wait to get the flu shot. It’s true that the antibodies you develop from the flu vaccine only last for about six months. “I tell people to get the flu vaccine as soon as they have a chance. You may only visit your doctor once in the Fall and not have a chance to have another health visit.”

“Even though flu antibodies decline after six months, it’s okay. It doesn’t mean you don’t have any protection against the flu,” says Dr. Myers. “I was just talking to a group of nurses about the flu vaccine. They had some questions about the flu vaccine’s effectiveness. It’s true, the flu shot is not 100% effective at preventing the flu. But the flu shot is highly effective at preventing severe illness and death.” 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report the flu vaccine is only 40% to 60% effective at preventing the flu. However, the flu vaccine prevented 58,000 hospitalizations in the U.S. in 2018. Older adults with the flu vaccine are 82% less likely to be admitted to hospital intensive care units (ICU) and children with the flu vaccine are 74% less likely to be admitted to the ICU, according to recent CDC studies. 

Even with evidence in favor of getting a flu vaccine, some are still skeptical and others just hate needles. Dr. Myers says a flu nasal vaccine is an effective option for “needle averse patients.” The nasal spray vaccine is a weakened form of the flu virus (live attenuated) sprayed into the nostrils instead of using a needle.

Until 2020, the flu was the leading cause of infectious disease deaths in the United States with more than 55,000 deaths in 2017. The flu is also the leading cause of preventable death. This year, COVID-19 looks to be in the lead for infectious disease with 200,000 deaths in the United States and counting. Deaths from COVID-19 are surpassed only by cancer and heart disease as the leading causes of death in America. Right now, COVID-19 vaccine trials are underway and may be on track to be the fastest vaccine ever approved under the Food and Drug Administration’s approval process.

One leading vaccine candidate, produced by Astra Zeneca, has trial sites around the world, including the Kansas City area. Children’s Mercy and the University of Kansas Medical Center are participating in the trial, though they haven’t yet enrolled any participants in the KC area. However, the Astra Zeneca COVID-19 vaccine was halted after a trial participant experienced adverse neurological symptoms.

“I am excited to see the data from the Phase III (COVID vaccine) trial. The clinical trial for the Astra Zeneca vaccine is on hold right now in the US. Potential adverse events are taken seriously even though they could be related to something else.”

Dr. Angela Myers

It’s important to note that hundreds of thousands of trial participants volunteered to help test the vaccine, but only one person has reported adverse effects. Scientists in the UK have determined that the symptoms were not related to the vaccine, and the trial has resumed there. Dr. Myers says, “I am excited to see the data from the Phase III trial,” adding that, “The clinical trial for the Astra Zeneca vaccine is on hold right now in the US. Potential adverse events are taken seriously even though they could be related to something else.”

For the best information about the seasonal flu, COVID-19, and vaccines in general, Dr. Myers urges everyone to visit CDC.gov.

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