To Flu, or Not to Flu

Like it or not, summer is ending, and flu season is beginning.  Based on the CDC’s recommendation, my little girl will probably be getting her flu shot at her 6 month check up in October.  An immunologist by training, I definitely understand and appreciate the importance of vaccines.  But it’s still not something I’m just going to blindly obey.

Let’s start by getting a few facts straight: I am very, very pro-vaccine.  Vaccines are lifesavers, pure and simple.  Without getting into anything negative, let me just say this: sometimes, as a culture, we don’t seem to appreciate how lucky we are that things like measles, polio, and diphtheria aren’t problems we need to concern ourselves with.

Rosalyn will absolutely be getting a flu shot.  She’ll be six months old when she gets it, and hasn’t had a chance yet to develop a strong immune system.  The shot will protect her from flu, and all the possible complications that can happen in someone with an immature immune system.  But there are just so many immunizations! For every one of them, I ask, “What do I think about giving this to my child?”

How do they even work, anyway?  An immunization introduces a foreign particle, called an antigen, into your immune system.  B cells, which produce antibody, and T cells, which help B cells work better and/or directly kill infected cells, recognize this antigen, and multiply to destroy it.  Most of these T and B cells will die, but a few, called memory cells, will live.  Because these memory cells have been previously activated, they are able to respond very quickly the next time they see their antigen.    The memory cells can multiply and fight the infection much more rapidly than a naïve cell.

Like pretty much all parents, I hate watching my baby in pain.  She doesn’t like getting shots.  And she has perfected the pathetic, “How could you?” look when something she doesn’t like happens.  I just tell myself it’s for the best.  She may not remember the shots for long, but I think we’ll both be happy that she doesn’t get tetanus or meningitis.  Of course the best case scenario would be that like smallpox, childhood ailments like Polio are eradicated and blogs like this are a thing of the past.

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2 responses to “To Flu, or Not to Flu

  1. Science momma… disclaimer – my child has received all vaccines. But… I like to make sure I understand what I am doing. So, if an immunization activates killer cells that retain this in their memory, then why are some vaccines once in a lifetime and a lot have to get repeated. Does the memory fade after a long time? I am most concerned with the flu vaccine. My child got it when he was smaller, but why do you have to get it every year? Are there really that many different flu strains? At a certain point, with an illness, like the flu, that’s not usually deadly to someone with a more developed immune system, does it make more sense to not get the flu shot so that their bodies actually learn to develop immunity on their own? I have never had a flu shot…. so just curious why my child has to get one every year for all eternity.

    • Hi Kelly, thanks for the questions! To answer your first part, some vaccines need to be repeated because, yes, you can “lose” memory over time. For example, the tetanus/diptheria/pertussis vaccine should be repeated about every ten years for full protection. There are some vaccines that are given as a series, such as hepatitis B. By constantly activating the immune cells, it helps improve the memory response. As for the flu vaccine, yes, the prevailing strain can change pretty drastically year to year. I’m sure you’ve seen in the news flu virus strains designated H5N1 or H1N1. This is referring to the two main surface proteins (H= hemagluttinin, N= neuraminidase). There are several different classes of each protein, which is where the numbers come from. In addition, the flu virus is very prone to mutations, so two different H1 strains could have very different hemagluttinin proteins. As for your child needing the shot every year for all eternity, as your child gets older, that’s something you can definitely bring up with your pediatrician if you think you’re overdoing the vaccines. Again, thanks for the questions!

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