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Risks Associated with Flu Vaccines

Oct 22, 2015

A recent post in the New York Times' Well blog, which covers health and medical questions, explored the risks associated with flu vaccines.

There are two types of flu vaccine: a shot and a nasal spray. Each has small, but different, risks the Times explains.

The flu shot includes a killed version of the virus and cannot give the recipient the flu. But since it is grown in eggs, it can cause an allergic reaction in people with egg allergies, according to the Times. The flu itself and the shot have also been linked to Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare nerve disorder. Anyone who has developed Guillain-Barre disorder within six months of a previous flu vaccine should get advice from a health care provider before getting a flu shot, said Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.

The second type of flu protection is the nasal spray FluMist. Since the spray does contain live virus, there is a small chance it could cause flu infection in a person with a compromised immune system. The spray form, therefore, is not recommended for anyone with a weakened immune system, including pregnant women, children younger than 2, those undergoing cancer treatment or frail older people. Anyone who lives with an immunocompromised person could also theoretically pass on the virus and so would be advised to get the shot instead, Dr. Doron told the Times.

After getting a flu shot, an individual may have a sore arm and a low-grade fever for a few days, the Times reports. Dr. Doron said that people with asthma or recent wheezing should avoid FluMist, which could worsen airway issues. Children taking aspirin should probably avoid the spray as well, because aspirin use and flu has been linked to Reye's syndrome, a rare but sometimes fatal swelling of the liver and brain.

The Times explains that though years of research have found no connection between thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative in vaccines, and autism, some parents remain concerned about this possibility. Multi-dose vials of flu vaccine do contain a small amount of thimerosal. Dr. Doron said Tufts purchases only single-dose vials, which do not have thimerosal, "just so that we never have to have that conversation."

Dr. Doron said the risks of flu, which causes thousands of death each year, "are much higher than the risks of the flu vaccine," according to the Times. Flu vaccination also helps protect others in a person's life, including babies less than six months old, people whose bodies do not have an adequate response to the vaccine, and those with compromised immune systems who cannot get the vaccine themselves. A flu shot is "for yourself and it's for everybody else," Dr. Doron said.

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