NOEL KING, HOST:
All right, it's October, and that means it is flu season. Federal health officials are urging, like they do every year, that we all get the flu vaccine as soon as possible. Here's NPR's Patti Neighmond.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Make no mistake - complications from the flu are scary.
WILLIAM SCHAFFNER: Pneumonia, having to be hospitalized and dying.
NEIGHMOND: Dr. William Schaffner is an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. He says, this time of year, let's all get vaccinated.
SCHAFFNER: Anyone and everyone six months and older in the United States should get vaccinated each and every year.
NEIGHMOND: But there are certain groups who especially need it because they're more susceptible to complications from the flu - for example, the elderly, pregnant women and people with chronic diseases. Their vaccination rates aren't nearly as high as federal officials would like - people like JoJo O'Neal, a music show host in Orlando, Fla. She was diagnosed with asthma in 2004 at age 40. But for years, she didn't get the flu vaccine.
JOJO O'NEAL: I skated along for a lot of years. And then finally, in 2018, boom - it hit me, and it hit me hard.
NEIGHMOND: She was out of work for nearly two weeks.
O'NEAL: I could barely move. My head was aching. My entire body was aching. I spent a lot of time just sitting on my couch just feeling miserable.
NEIGHMOND: So this year, O'Neal's not taking any chances.
UNIDENTIFIED MEDICAL PROFESSIONAL: Would you like your flu vaccine on the left or the right arm?
O'NEAL: Let's see. I guess the right arm will be OK.
NEIGHMOND: She stopped by her local pharmacy after work.
O'NEAL: And it won't hurt a bit (laughter.)
NEIGHMOND: O'Neal's making the right decision, says Dr. MeiLan Han, spokesperson for the American Lung Association. She says anyone with any type of lung condition really needs the vaccine.
MEILAN HAN: Unfortunately, in patients that have chronic lung conditions, when they contract the flu, the virus does go to the lung. And it can make a situation where it's already hard to breathe even harder.
NEIGHMOND: In fact, people with any kind of chronic health condition, like cancer or diabetes, need protection against the flu, says Han, because their immune systems are often impaired.
HAN: Which means that the inflammation, the infection may become more severe because of the body's impaired ability to fight it. That places this group of individuals at increased risk.
NEIGHMOND: Han says 92% of people hospitalized due to the flu had at least one underlying chronic health condition, but only about a third of them get vaccinated. Pregnant women are also more prone to flu complications, yet only about half get vaccinated. Some women worry the vaccine isn't safe for them or their babies.
ALICIA FRY: I think some of the fears about safety are certainly understandable, but they're misinformed.
NEIGHMOND: Dr. Alicia Fry is a medical epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She says the evidence is clear - the vaccine is extremely safe. She points to a recent study showing it reduces the risk of hospitalization for flu for pregnant women by 40%. As for worries the vaccine might not be safe for the baby, Fry says the exact opposite is true. Antibodies from the vaccine that fight the flu virus cross the placenta and can protect the baby in the first months of life.
FRY: In the first three months of life, it can prevent 70% of illness associated with influenza or flu viruses in the baby. So it's a double protection - mom is protected, and the baby's protected.
NEIGHMOND: Now, the flu vaccine won't protect against all strains of the virus, but Schaffner says it's still worth getting. And if you do get the flu, it will be less severe, and you'll be less likely to develop complications.
Patti Neighmond, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF YMORI AND PUEBLO VISTA'S "BETTER THINGS")
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