A Tough Year to Fight the Flu

Ed Tobias avatar

by Ed Tobias |

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I’m fighting a cold. I’m coughing and I’m congested. I’m hoping it’s not the flu.

This is not a year to get the flu.

The type of flu circulating in most of North America right now is the H3N2 variety. And, in the words of Helen Branswell in a STAT article she’s written, H3N2 is “the problem child of seasonal flu.”

H3N2 kills more people than any of the other flu varieties. It’s also the toughest strain to protect against. Research shows the flu vaccine, which inoculates against several varieties, is only about 33 percent effective against H3N2. The component in the same vaccine that fights H1N1 flu, on the other hand, is about twice as effective. Influenza expert Dr. Ed Belongia, quoted in Branswell’s article, puts it this way:

“The biggest challenge or frustration is that H3 … for whatever reason, is the virus that we see causing the most severe illness in large numbers of people. And it’s also the virus for which our vaccine is least effective. And so that’s a double whammy that so far we have not been able to adequately deal with.”

The statistics this season bear this out. As of Jan. 6, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported “widespread” flu activity in 49 states. Only Hawaii has escaped so far. As of the final week of 2017, flu claimed at least 211 lives in the U.S. In Australia, where flu season precedes North America by about six months, health officials reported a record number of flu cases.

Flu shots?

Last fall, when the North American flu season was just gearing up, I posed this question to my readers: “Flu Shot or No Flu Shot for MS patients?” The response I received on some social media platforms surprised me. Though the majority of people said they had (or would get) one, several answered: “never,” “not me,” or “I got the flu from the shot.” It seems to me this is a dangerous way of looking at a vaccine that saves lives. I got mine in October.

The National Multiple Sclerosis Society thinks getting a flu shot is a no-brainer. Its website says:

“The seasonal flu vaccine has been studied extensively in people with MS and is considered quite safe, regardless of the disease-modifying therapy they are taking. However, individuals being treated with Lemtrada® should be given the inactivated flu vaccine six weeks before receiving their Lemtrada infusion.”

That NMSS webpage is a good source of more detailed flu vaccine information with information related to specific disease-modifying drugs.

Can the vaccine give me the flu?

Doctors say the flu vaccine doesn’t give you the flu, but here’s why some people may think it does, according to the CDC:

  • Other respiratory viruses cause symptoms similar to flu and also spread and cause illness during the flu season. The flu vaccine only protects against influenza, not other illnesses.
  • It’s possible to be exposed to influenza viruses, which cause the flu, shortly before getting vaccinated or during the two-week period after vaccination that it takes the body to develop immune protection. This exposure may result in a person becoming ill with flu before protection from the vaccine takes effect.
  • The flu vaccine can vary in how well it works and some people who get vaccinated may still get sick. That seems to be the case this flu season.

Have you had your shot?

The flu generally peaks in February, so there’s still time to get a shot. You can get one in nearly any pharmacy and, in most cases in the U.S., it’s covered with no co-pay. If you’re still on the fence, at least hear what your doctor has to say about it.

I’m very glad that I got my flu vaccine again this year, as I have for decades. If my cold turns out to be the flu, I’m confident that it will be an easier ride than if I’d neglected to do that.

You’re invited to follow my personal blog at The MS Wire.


Note: Multiple Sclerosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Multiple Sclerosis News Today, or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to multiple sclerosis.


Jan Brown avatar

Jan Brown

Ocrevus also follows the 6 weeks protocol. My doctor recommended that I get 2 shots 2 months apart. Thought I would share this with you.

Ed Tobias avatar

Ed Tobias

Good info, Jan. Thanks for sharing.


Kelly Buffum avatar

Kelly Buffum

I routinely get sick the same day I receive the vaccine. It is directly connected. The comments regarding getting sick from the vaccine dodges the issue and does not acknowledge that the vaccine can make people feel ill, but rather blames it on coincidentally catching something around the time of receiving the vaccine. Perhaps it is something else on the vaccine and not the actual flu virus making people like myself sick. Either way, my immune system is obviously triggered and for someone with MS this can lead to a downward spiral as we all know. Still, since beginning Ocrevus I am even more concerned about being immunized againstblife threatening illnesses. I have received my first infusion and am 45 days from receiving my second. I am in a dilemma deciding whether to go ahead and take a chance with vaccines. But given my compromised immune system, this is quite and vision to make. I believe the bottom line is that we really don’t know yet vaccines’ true impacts on triggering the immune system (why they are reported to be “relatively safe”), and especially their impact on those with disease modifying drugs which severely lower immunity. It’s almost a double edged sword. So hard to know what to do!

Ed Tobias avatar

Ed Tobias

Hi Kelly,

Thanks for your comments. I'm a layman, so I can't provide a medical judgment about the reason you get sick right after the shot. However, it's probably not a coincidence. According to the Centers for Disease Control common side effects from the flu shot include:

Soreness, redness, and/or swelling from the shot
Muscle aches

These symptoms should be mild and go away within a few days. The flu is a much heavier hitter.

I'm being treated with Lemtrada, so I'm also more concerned than usual about protecting myself from illnesses. Both my neurologist and my PCP recommend the shot (and the pneumonia and shingles shots as well).

There is a protocol for the timing of a flu shot for Ocrevus patients, so be sure to speak with your neurologist about it. (Another reply to this column mentions this).

Good luck with your treatment and making the vaccine decision that's best for you.


Carrie scott avatar

Carrie scott

On Ocrevus too. No shot for me. Have Ocrevus infusion next week.


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