Flu shot is a family affair

Some moms resist getting vaccine, but it may be because their immune systems react differently than men

February 09, 2011|Susan Reimer

My husband says he doesn't need a flu shot because he's never had the flu. Which, if you think about it, is a lot like saying you don't need to use contraception because you've never gotten pregnant.

He didn't give me a scientific reason for not getting a flu shot, unless you consider superstition a branch of medicine.

Like too many Americans, he thinks a flu shot renders you vulnerable to the flu. Cosmically, if not physically. It is like you are testing fate. A flu shot, he reasons, will cause his lucky streak of flu-less winters to come to an end.

It is a hard argument to counter, especially when it is made by a guy who thinks winning at video poker is a matter of talent.

What is unusual is that in most households, it is the wife and mother who most often declines to get a flu shot — because she says she doesn't have time to get the flu.

"They say they don't have the time to feel awful because of their multi-tasking lives," said Dr. Sabra Klein, assistant professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

Typically, men are significantly less likely to seek out medical care, but the flu shot is different because it is readily available, often at the workplace. When all your co-workers are lining up, Klein said, "you are less likely to question it."

However, women, who make 90 percent of the health-care decisions for the family, resist getting flu shots because they say they don't feel good afterward.

It could be, Klein said, that women are getting more vaccine than they need — perhaps twice as much — and the rigorous immune response the higher dose triggers in them makes them feel lousy.

Klein has studied the difference in the immune reactions of men and women and found that, for reasons that are not completely clear, a woman's immune system mounts a much higher response to the introduction of the inactive flu virus into her system.

"The immune system sees something foreign enter your body and starts attacking it. The redness, fever, the fact that you just don't feel great — that's the immune system recognizing the virus and mounting a response to it," Klein said.

This happens in both men and women, of course. But women have been found to mount just as high an immune response to half a dose.

"It is the same vaccine, but men's and women's bodies react differently," said Klein.

It is not surprising that women report more fever, inflammation and pain than men do after a flu shot if they are indeed getting twice the vaccine that they need.

During flu seasons when the vaccine is at a premium, giving women half a dose would make more of it available for the rest of the population, Klein argued. But at the very least, reducing the dose given to women would reduce the side effects that pass almost unnoticed in men.

February is the peak of flu season in the Mid-Atlantic, a season that can last until March or April. Though the immunization campaign begins in the early fall to get the attention of as many people as possible, it is in fact not too late to get a shot that will protect you from the flu this year.

Oh. And my husband?

The last time I talked to him, he was waiting in line at the grocery store.

To get his flu shot.


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