10/11/2015 11:47 EDT | Updated 10/11/2016 05:12 EDT

Let's Start a New Thanksgiving Tradition: Talking About the Flu Shot

Flu Shot by a Needle
Don Stevenson via Getty Images
Flu Shot by a Needle

This past weekend, Canadians across the country took a few moments to step away from the rush of work and school. They gathered with friends and family to celebrate the arrival of fall and bemoan the inevitable dread of winter. Amidst a variety of harvest choices, they ate and most likely took time to rest.

Thanksgiving also marks the arrival of another regular occurrence though most of us do not discuss at this time. It's the impending arrival of the flu. We all know the influenza virus is coming but at this time of joyous celebration, we tend to avoid this topic.

It makes sense, really. The flu season doesn't usually start until November and usually doesn't make headlines until the Holiday Season. Only then do we hear of the thousands of Canadians suffering from the effects of infection including coughing, fever, respiratory troubles, and those painful aches. For the unlucky ones, about 8,000 in the last season, this also meant a trip to the hospital. More somberly, some 600 also lost their lives.

There is, however, a link between the Harvest Holiday and the viral menace although this is decidedly good news. The flu vaccine is made available around this time and flu shot campaigns are getting ready to jump into high gear. Within a few weeks, the television and radio public service announcements will be released and pamphlets will appear on pharmacy counters. Before you know it, mention of the flu vaccine will be everywhere.

The flu shot has for the most part proven to be a major factor in helping to maintain health. For those over 65 and under the age of seven, it has greatly reduced the burden they suffer. For the rest of us, the vaccine has offered some assistance in preventing the spread of the virus.

That being said, the vaccine isn't always perfect. It's because the components need to be made up to six months before the first infection occurs. Much like a weather forecast, there may be gaps in accuracy meaning the immune system won't be properly primed. It's rare, mind you. Most of the time, the predictions are close enough to ensure at least six out of every ten exposures will not result in infection.

This "miss" may be an issue in the current flu season but it may not be a bad thing in the long run. Even if a vaccine doesn't hit the mark, there's a cumulative effect on immunity. Our internal memory of flu viruses grows and provides an even larger span of remembrance. Even though we may not encounter a particular virus one year, our memory will be prepared for its arrival in the future. This expanded memory may also help future vaccinations making them even more effective.

For this year, the vaccine composition is different than last and should offer about a one-in-two chance of preventing infection from an exposure. There's also an added bonus; instead of the usual three strains, most will have four. That additional strain caused significant troubles in Australia and was included to ensure Canadians are safe. This means an even greater amount of protection for anyone choosing to get the shot.

There is, however, one caveat to this protection. It has to come at least three weeks before the virus invades the respiratory tract. A proper defensive response doesn't happen immediately after vaccination as the body needs time to develop memory. During that time, if the virus invades, the immune system may not be properly prepared to fight and could lead to symptoms if not a flow blown infection. It's why the earlier a vaccine is received, the better.

This last fact makes Thanksgiving the perfect time to talk about the vaccine. For most regions of the country, we are still over a month away from the arrival of the flu. This gives us time to find a source, get the shot, and let our immune systems develop that memory. Also, it allows us to get ahead of the campaign so we can proudly say we've received the shot long before anyone told us to do so. Finally, for those concerned about effectiveness of the vaccine, many of the studies from the Australian experience will have been released revealing just how well the vaccine did.

There is still time this Thanksgiving season to talk about the vaccine and determine whether it is best for you and your loved ones. After all, the ultimate choice is personal and needs to be made by you. As for the future, make sure to add an annual notice in your calendar. When Thanksgiving comes, it's time to talk about the flu shot. This will help everyone become aware of the impending flu season and how we can get through it when it arrives.


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