This year marks the centennial anniversary of the 1918 influenza (flu) pandemic that is still remembered as one of the worst plagues in history. It’s estimated that 500 million people were infected by the 1918 flu virus and at least 50 million people or more died worldwide from the strain, including an estimated 675,000 Americans.

One hundred years ago, the world faced the “mother” of all pandemics. Today, we have learned the lessons of yesterday: take influenza seriously. As we remember the century-old influenza pandemic, HCA Healthcare reminds people all over the country to remain vigilant in preventing the spread of flu.

“Flu remains the number one cause of vaccine-preventable death in the United States,” said Jonathan Perlin, MD, PhD, president of clinical services and chief medical officer at HCA Healthcare. “The flu vaccine is the best way to protect yourself and others from serious illness this winter.”

HCA Today sat down with Kenneth Sands, MD, HCA’s chief epidemiologist, to answer the most frequently asked questions about the flu vaccine and explain why you should get vaccinated.

I’m young and healthy. Do I still need the flu shot?

The flu can be significant and worse, deadly, even for healthy people. In fact, the most deadly flu in 1918 hit young, healthy people the hardest. The average age of those who died during the pandemic was 28 years old. The reason is that when healthy people get sick from the flu their immune systems have a stronger reaction to the virus. Being strong and healthy does not mean an individual will not get the flu. Another reason to get the flu shot, even if one is healthy, is to avoid spreading the virus to others.

Does the flu vaccine give you the flu?

The flu shot cannot cause flu illness. There is no “live” virus in the vaccine, so it cannot replicate in an individual’s body and therefore cannot give someone the flu. Some people will have a mild reaction to the vaccination, typically locally at the injection site, which may include pain, redness and swelling.

I got the flu shot and still got the flu. How effective is the vaccine?  

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), flu immunization reduces the risk of illness by 40 to 60 percent. The flu vaccine is not 100 percent effective, however, it substantially decreases the risk of contracting the flu.  So, there are two reasons for getting the vaccine: 1.) It will help prevent flu altogether, although not necessarily 100 percent of the time, and 2.) If an individual is in the percentage that still contracts the flu after the vaccine, it’s probably going to be a milder case.

I got the flu shot last year. Do I need to get it again this winter?

Yes. The strains of flu that circulate change every year, therefore the vaccine gets updated annually. This year’s flu vaccine is different from last year’s vaccination and protects you from the strains that are around most recently. It is important to get vaccinated every year.

Can I get the flu shot if I’m sick with a cold?

If an individual has a significant illness with a high fever, he/she should consult with a healthcare provider about the flu vaccination. The physician may want to wait before administering the flu vaccine. However, a common cold or mild illness is no reason not to get the flu vaccine.

Can I get the flu vaccine if I’m pregnant?

Yes. Pregnant women have more to gain from getting the vaccine. Influenza can make a pregnant woman especially ill due to changes to the immune system, heart, and lungs during pregnancy. Contracting the flu can also be harmful to a developing baby, as fevers are associated with neural tube defects and other injuries. The influenza vaccine has been shown to be as effective and safe in pregnant women as in the general population.

I’ve heard that children with cerebral palsy or epilepsy shouldn’t get the flu shot. Is this true?

The vast majority of children, even those that have some chronic conditions, can and should get the flu vaccine. Talk to your pediatrician if there are any concerns. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all people over the age of 6 months receive the flu vaccine as soon as it becomes available. Last year, 180 children in the U.S. died from flu-related illness according to the CDC. About 80 percent of them didn’t get the flu vaccine.

In addition to getting the flu shot, how else can individuals protect themselves?

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. Germs spread this way.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. If you don’t have a tissue available, it is best to cough into your elbow to prevent flu-virus particles from spreading.
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with germs like the flu.
  • Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
  • If you are sick with flu-like illness, CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone, except to get medical care or other necessities. (Your fever should be gone for 24 hours without the use of a fever-reducing medicine.)

HCA 50th Anniversary
In 1968, HCA Healthcare was conceived by two physicians and an accomplished business leader — Dr. Thomas Frist Sr., Dr. Thomas Frist Jr., and Jack Massey. This year, HCA celebrates its golden anniversary and the culture of caring established by our three founders 50 years ago. To help us celebrate our 50th year, we’ll share stories here that reflect HCA’s mission – above all else, the care and improvement of human life – and our pledge to improve life and make history for the next 50 years and beyond.