Northbrook doc makes case for flu shots
Dr. Michael Unger gives a flu shot to Ron Branstrom of Glenview, in his office Thursday, October 25, 2012 in Northbrook. I David Banks~Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 2, 2012 6:33AM
NORTHBROOK — To do or not to do flu shots is not a question for at least one North Shore medical professional.
Influenza kills as many as 35,000 people in the United States alone every winter, said Dr. Michael Unger, owner and medical director of Allied Healthcare Associates in Northbrook.
“Most people don’t realize that it is a real killer. At least two patients of mine have died from it in the last 10 years,” Dr. Unger said. “The reason we give flu shots is not just so people don’t get sick and feel bad. We’re trying to save lives.”
The most susceptible are the very young, the elderly, and those with chronic illnesses and underlying health problems such as asthma, heart disease and emphysema. The influenza virus is easily passed from person to person, leading to wide outbreaks and epidemics, he said.
Unger noted that large amounts of the flu virus are present in respiratory secretions, so the virus is quickly transmitted by coughing, sneezing and talking.
The Center for Disease Control develops a flu vaccine every year. It uses a variety of data to “guess” what strain of flu will dominate each season. Then, a vaccine is created to counter the two or three most likely viruses, he said.
“About 80 percent of the time, the scientists get it right. Considering how hard the science is, they do a great job. This year, the vaccine protects against Influenza A California H1N1, Influenza A Victoria H3N2, and Influenza B Wisconsin,” he added.
The people who absolutely need to be vaccinated are: pregnant women; and children younger than 5 years old, but especially younger than 2 years old. Also: people 50 years and older; those of any age with specific medical conditions; people in nursing homes or other long-term care facilities; health care workers; and household contacts of people at high risk for complications from the flu.
When a person gets a flu shot, he is not just protecting himself; he is protecting everyone around him. That includes people who can’t get a flu shot, because they’re allergic, infants less than six months old; and people so sick with cancer or immune deficiency problems, that they can’t get flu shots, Unger said.
“We want to protect those people from getting influenza, too. The only way to accomplish that is by making sure everyone around them doesn’t have the flu. We call that ‘herd immunity.’ If the entire herd is immune, those people who aren’t immune won’t get the disease either,” he added.
Unger also noted that people talk about the stomach flu with diarrhea, and colds, but these are not influenza. Flu shots don’t work on those illnesses. They only protect against true influenza.
“If one is not having respiratory symptoms, it can’t be influenza. The chief symptoms are body aches, high fever and cough. If a person doesn’t have those symptoms, he doesn’t have the flu,” he said.
“And a lot of people say they don’t get flu shots, because they don’t work. They still became sick. The shots can’t prevent people from getting sick, they just protest them from influenza. And shots can’t give them the flu, though some people think that. It is a dead virus and can’t possibly give anyone the flu.”
A single inoculation probably provides all the good antibodies needed for a year or two, but it also provides trace antibodies for 10 years,” Unger added.
“Maybe one day when a really bad pandemic hits, it will be a strain we’ve been inoculated for before. That may be enough to save us from dying,” Unger said.
“I’ve been having flu shots every year for 25 years, so I’ve been vaccinated against 75 strains. In the future, that could provide me with protection from a really bad epidemic.”