It is that time of year again. Flu shot season.
While most of us know that getting a flu shot is a good idea, it is especially important that cancer patients — and their family members — roll up their sleeves for their best shot to ward off influenza.
Now that this year’s vaccine is available, patients can get their vaccine while in clinic, and their loved ones are provided free flu shots when they have an appointment at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, the clinical care partner of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
“We’ve promoted for a long time this idea in our cancer center of giving free flu vaccines to families and caregivers. It’s part of the culture now. If you are a patient here, and you’ve got family members with you, you can get them vaccinated for free,” said Fred Hutch researcher Dr. Steven Pergam, who is also medical director of infection prevention at SCCA.
“The flu is dangerous for everybody. That’s important to remember,” he said. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield, last year’s particularly virulent flu killed an estimated 80,000 Americans. Each year, influenza is blamed for up to 650,000 deaths worldwide.
Cancer patients are particularly vulnerable to infections because their immune systems may be weakened by radiation therapy, chemotherapy or cancer itself.
Every doctor and nearly every employee at SCCA gets a flu shot each year, said Pergam, who specializes in the study of microbial threats to patients with compromised immune systems. That is important because health care workers often are in close contact with cancer patients. That includes not just doctors and nurses, but food service personnel and custodial staff. But Pergam stressed that the most prolonged exposure people with cancer typically have to microbes is with their family members or colleagues at work.
“If someone drops off a tray of food, your exposure is short,” he explained. “But if you have an infected person sleeping in the same bed with you, sharing meals with you, sitting in the same car as you, watching TV on the same couch, your likelihood of getting the flu is much higher.”
Hence, SCCA and Fred Hutch are stressing the importance to patients, employees and their family members of getting the annual vaccine.
Pergam also stressed that if someone comes down with flu symptoms, they should stay home from work, school or other gatherings. “We all need to remember that it is never obvious who in these settings might be a cancer patient or be someone caring for a cancer patient at home.”
Flu vaccines are not perfect, because the influenza virus mutates every season to sidestep the body’s ability to block it. When the vaccine is working, it primes the body’s immune system to churn out proteins called antibodies that closely match the strain that strikes each flu season. A good vaccine can cut the odds of seeking medical attention for flu by more than half. A poor one can be as little as 10 percent protective. This year’s flu vaccine has been reformulated to block two newer strains of flu identified last winter, and early indications are that it is a good match for the coming season in the U.S.
Because it takes two weeks for the body to build up immunity after vaccination, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that families get their flu shots by the end of October. Flu vaccines are recommended for anyone over 6 months of age and are particularly important for young children, pregnant women, the elderly and anyone with a chronic illness. Many medical professionals recommend a high-dose flu vaccine for people over the age of 65 — as they are at high risk of influenza and its complications.
“The ideal time to get vaccinated is when it’s available,” Pergam said. “If you have an opportunity and a flu vaccine is offered, get it. Influenza could be right around the corner.”
Sabin Russell is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. For two decades he covered medical science, global health and health care economics for the San Francisco Chronicle, and wrote extensively about infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS. He was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, and a freelance writer for the New York Times and Health Affairs. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.