I grew up in a family where my mother was a nurse and my father was a firefighter. On top of that both of them volunteered as medics for the rescue squad in our community. Medical things were very commonplace conversation pieces in my house. There wa
s a back board tucked away behind the couch and an aspirator in the back of our car. That was normal.
Another normal thing that we did was doing anything that we could to keep ourselves from getting sick. My mom worked for a while in the respiratory department of the hospital, and she had dealt with more than her fair share of flu patients. She would come home one day at about this time of year and declare “The flu is going to be bad this year.” I’m not exactly sure what she was comparing it to because she said that every year. I just imagined that the flu got worse every year.
Without fail, my mom would take us every year to see our pediatrician whether we were sick or not. He’d look in my throat, listen to my chest, and then his nurse would give me a little shot. It didn’t hurt much and they always told me that it would protect me from getting the flu. My doctor said that it was important that I got it every year because my parents were exposed to the virus at their jobs and could easily bring it home to me. And it must have worked because I only remember having the flu once when I was a kid.
As I got older, of course, my mom stopped taking me to the doctor. Most of the places that I worked would bring healthcare professionals in to give a vaccine to everyone who wanted one and it was free of charge. Of course I was always in that line.
Until I got married and had children, I got that shot every year with the sole purpose of not getting the flu. I didn’t want to get sick. As far as I was concerned that was the only reason to get it. Then I met a woman in my 20s who would later become my wife. She had something called CVID. I urge you to go look that up and find out what you can about it, but I’ll give you the nutshell right here. CVID stands for Common Variable Immune Deficiency. CVID is one of many disorders that fall under primary immunodeficiencies (PI). It’s a disorder that causes a person’s immune system to be impaired. That person is going to be a whole lot more susceptible to infections and viruses than someone like me with a normal immune system.
It’s considered to be a rare disease, but if you do a search for a few Facebook groups then you’ll quickly find out that a lot more people have it than you realize. For instance, my wife and my son both have it because it is often hereditary. On top of that, my wife has made friends with a lot of people just in our part of the state who have it or variations of it.
So, what does any of that have to do with flu shots? During our first year of marriage, when October rolled around, I told my wife that we were getting our flu vaccines at work and that she needed to make an appointment to go get hers as well. She told me that she would go and get the shot but it probably wouldn’t do any good. I explained that I rarely got the flu and I got a shot every year. She said that was because I have a normal immune system.
I have to say that my knowledge of how immune systems worked was pretty lacking when I was 24. The flu shot works because they administer a small amount of the flu virus into your body. The virus is dead so it can’t infect you, but your body creates the antibodies that it needs to fight it. That way, if you’re exposed to the real thing later on in the season then your body already has the tools it needs to do battle.
When a person with a PI disorder is exposed to bacteria or a virus, their body doesn’t create the antibodies it needs to fight it off. So, they can take a flu shot but there is no guarantee that it will do what it is supposed to do. If they get exposed to the flu later on their body may simply not create enough of the antibodies to keep them from getting sick. And what’s even worse is that it takes them a lot longer to fight it off.
My wife and my son get almost no benefit from the flu shot that they get every year. They still go get it because their immunologist says that the few antibodies that they get from it are better than none at all. I get my shot and so does my daughter. It gives us peace of mind that we have a better chance of not bringing the virus into our home. It is also important that we get the shot which is made with a dead strain of the virus. The mist vaccines use an actual live virus and it can be dangerous for them to be around someone who has had one in the past few days.
So, they depend on you to keep them safe during flu season. They depend on the people that they interact with every day to do the right thing and get their flu shot. You’re protecting yourself from a potential illness, but you’re also helping those in our community that have very weak immune systems.
And it isn’t just people with PI disorders. There are people that you see every day that have compromised immune systems. People with Cystic Fibrosis or people who have recently gone through chemotherapy treatments for cancer get very little benefit from a flu shot. You are their main barrier. When everyone in the community is protected then we have herd immunity.
If you know someone with a compromised immune system, please get a flu shot. Do it for you and do it for them.
Shawn Wray is a husband, dad and podcaster who lives in Leeds. His website iswww.cosmicpotato.com.