By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
It’s flu-shot time again, and this year the Mexican government has purchased nearly 40 million influenza vaccines that will be distributed free of charge to children under age 5, adults over 65 and other high-risk persons (those who are pregnant, those with diabetes, those with compromised immune systems and those with asthma or other respiratory conditions).
But while not all Mexicans fall into the government’s definition of “high-risk,” the truth is that virtually every person over the age of six months should be vaccinated.
To begin with, according to a recent report from the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC), somewhere between 291,000 and 646,000 people worldwide die from seasonal influenza-related respiratory illnesses each year, a figure that is considerably higher than the previous CDC estimate of 250,000 to 500,000.
And while not everyone who contracts the disease will be hospitalized or die, according to renowned Mexican internist and infectologist Alejandro Ernesto Macías Hernández, who served at Mexico’s influenza commissioner during the 2009 H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic, each year about 5 to 10 percent of all Mexicans will come down with the flu, and about 20 to 30 percent of those patients will be children.
“Fortunately, in Mexico, we have a very good vaccine culture, and that means that most people who fall into the high-risk category will get their flu vaccine,” he said during a press conference organized by Sanofi Pasteur, a subsidiary of the French multinational pharmaceutical giant Sanofi and the world’s largest corporation dedicated exclusively to the production of vaccines.
“But while most Mexicans who are eligible to receive the government-sponsored vaccines do get vaccinated, not all of them do it properly.”
In the case of infants, for example, Macías Hernández said that less than half receive the recommended dosage of two shots, the first at six months of age and the second one month later.
“Many Mexican parents faithfully immunize their infants against influenza during their first year of life, but they don’t always know or are not always told that they should bring their child back for a booster vaccination in four weeks,” Macías Hernández said.
The infectologist likewise pointed out that too many Mexicans wait until the end of the year or early January to get their flu shots, which limits the effectiveness of the medicine’s protection.
“Influenza infections occur year-round, but there is a major spike in cases during the colder months,” he said.
“Here in Mexico, the flu season starts in about November and lasts through about February. And since it takes about two weeks for the vaccine to make your body produce a full defense of antibodies, it is best to get your flu shot early.”
Even those who are not covered by Mexico’s public health system should get the shot, Macías Hernández said.
The cost is minimal, about 500 to 1,500 pesos, depending where it is administered.
(The American Benevolent Society will be hosting its annual health fair at Union Church in Colonia Lomas de Chapultepec in November, where the vaccine will be administered at a nominal fee by staff from the ABC Medical Center. The health fair is open to everyone.)
Macías Hernández admitted that most people who get the flu will not suffer major consequences beyond a fever and other minor symptoms.
“But what we have to keep in mind is that this is a disease that can – for the most part – be prevented,” he said.
“And even those who contract the influenza virus after having been vaccinated are going to suffer much milder symptoms.”
Macías Hernández said that while less than 10 percent of Mexicans who come down with the flu will seek medical help, last season a total of 3,550 cases were registered by the national Health Secretariat (SSA), and of those, 133 died.
“The vast majority of those patients were in the high-risk category, but not all of them,” he said.
“And of those who died, 85 percent had not been vaccinated.”
It is true that each year the overall effectiveness of the vaccine can vary, depending on how accurate the scientists who develop the influenza shot (working a full year ahead) are able to predict what strains will prevail and how radically those strains might mutate over the coming months.
Last season, the flu shot was particularly ineffective.
According to the CDC, its overall protection was just 36 percent, meaning it reduced a person’s risk of getting sick with flu and going to a doctor’s office by about a third.
And the vaccine’s effectiveness against H3N2, the most commonly circulating strain that flu season, was only 25 percent.
It is too early to tell how well this year’s influenza vaccine will work, but as Macías Hernández rightly pointed out, any defense against the illness is better than no defense.
And the World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that, after access to potable water, vaccinations are the best defense against the contraction of communicable diseases.
The WHO also said that there is no more effective way of avoiding contracting influenza than to get an annual flu shot.
Sanofi Pasteur is currently running a mass media campaign in Mexico that says “Vivir en peligro no es normal” (“Living in danger is not normal”).
Influenza at any age can be at best debilitating and at worse life-threatening.
It only takes a minute or two to roll up your sleeve, and get a flu shot.
I got one myself yesterday (I do so every year), and just knowing that I have one less potential hazard to worry about is well worth the brief sting of the needle.