Should Patients with Cancer Get the Flu Vaccine?

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Should Patients with Cancer Get the Flu Vaccine?
Should Patients with Cancer Get the Flu Vaccine?

Body aches, fever, and chills on top of the side effects of cancer treatment could prove to be a miserable experience; however, the American Cancer Society (ACS) does advise patients with cancer to get the influenza (flu) vaccine.1 

Every year, educational campaigns remind people to get vaccinated for the flu, with the exception of those who are younger than 6 months or those already sick with a virus or bacterial infection (eg, the common cold). In all other circumstances, individuals should get the vaccine, the ACS says.

Even though flu shots are available at schools, grocery stores, minute clinics, and pharmacies, patients with cancer may feel unsure about receiving it. Patients with cancer are especially vulnerable to illness and can experience severe complications, such as bacterial pneumonia or dehydration if they contract the flu, so they should get the shot as soon as they are able. Cancer survivors and caretakers alike of patients with cancer should also protect themselves by getting immunized annually.1

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the flu vaccine protects against several types of flu, including influenza A (H1N1) virus, influenza A (H3N2) virus, and one or two influenza B viruses, depending on the type of flu vaccine received.2

Low vaccination rates can lead to a staggering number of ill patients. The flu affects  between 3 million and 5 million people annually and results in approximately 200,000 to 500,000 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.3 This number includes all patients, not only those with cancer.

Flu Injection versus Mist

The CDC recommended that patients with cancer should get the flu shot, but not receive the intranasal flu mist spray because the flu mist does contain a live, but weakened, form of influenza. The flu vaccine administered by injection is considered a safer option for people with compromised immune systems.2

One of the perceived side effects of the flu shot is that it sometimes patients experience flu-like symptoms. Medical staff must educate patients to combat the notion that that the flu vaccine causes flu-like symptoms, as this is incorrect information.2 This unfortunate misunderstanding is hard to squash, however, when some patients report feeling achy or feverish for 1 to 2 days after receiving the shot.

There are antiviral drugs available to combat the flu if a patient with cancer who has undergone chemotherapy treatment within the last month has been exposed to the flu before they received their vaccine. If exposure occurs, the patient should contact their medical team right away to determine if treatment with antivirals will aid in prevention of the flu.4  

The flu is notorious for having a devastating impact among individuals throughout the United States; while flu vaccines afford protection against common strains of the flu, many patients remain skeptical. Keeping this in mind, it is essential for healthcare professionals to continue to educate their patients about the value of this vaccine. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” and this idiom clearly remains relevant today.  

References

  1. American Cancer Society. Should I get a flu shot? http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/physicalsideeffects/infectionsinpeoplewithcancer/seasonal-and-h1n1-flu-vaccine-information. Accessed November 20, 2013.
  2. Centers for Disease Control. Seasonal Influenza: The basics. http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/disease/index.htm. Accessed November 20, 2013.
  3. World Health Organization. Influenza (seasonal). http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs211/en/. Accessed November 20, 2013
  4. Centers for Disease Control. Cancer, the flu and you. http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/flu/. Accessed November 20, 2013.

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