Open Accessibility Menu

Yes, Immunizations, Flu Shots Help

Yes, Immunizations, Flu Shots Help

As Seen in the Odessa American “Medical Matters”

As you may be well aware, flu season is upon us. Occasionally I come across individuals that are unsure about the general benefits of receiving a flu shot, and in some instances immunization in general. I wanted to share a little historical perspective regarding a virus that humanity struggled with only a generation or so back – small pox. While researching information about this disease, I typed in one of my favorite names into the search field – DA Henderson. Instead of the usual platitudes and articles related to smallpox eradication, new headlines popped up, stating that he had passed away. I had met him only once, as a member of the audience for a lecture he gave at Johns Hopkins sharing his experience helping to eradicate smallpox from the planet.

So, in homage to this fallen giant of a man, I wanted to share with you two separate insights surrounding his work. The first related to an innovation in vaccination technology, and the second related to an innovation in process. But first, let’s talk about what the world was like prior to the small pox vaccine.

Variola major, or the severe form of the small pox infection was a brutal disease. Having emerged in human populations thousands of years ago, it, along with another virus, influenza (the reason we take the flu shot), was one of the few infectious diseases that decimated populations in such an effective manner that it may have shaped mankind’s history. George Washington supposedly debated for a year whether or not to institute a primitive form of small pox vaccination (called variolization) of this revolutionary army, suggesting a familiarity with what the disease could do to his ranks. Historians also note how haggard Lincoln appeared during the delivery of the historic Gettysburg address, and this may have been attributable to the fact that he developed small pox only days shortly thereafter. It’s hard to imagine what the implications of Lincoln not giving the famed address, but this was nearly the case. For this and other fascinating instances of when the disease intersected with our history, consider reading William Foege’s ‘House on Fire.’

As late as the 1950’s 50 million individuals would contract the virus each year. Dr. Henderson’s genius lay in applying a new type of vaccine delivery mechanism, the bifurcated needle, which allowed healthcare workers to vaccinate individuals extremely quickly. The second innovation involved a process called surveillance and containment, which required teams to identify index cases in an epidemic and vaccinate individuals around those cases to keep the disease from spreading. These two initiatives enabled us to conquer the virus, and all the suffering that it wrought.

The flu shot protects not only yourself, but also the members of the public too ill or too young to receive the vaccination. It thus reduces the rate of mortality from the flu in our community. By receiving the flu shot, you are literally doing your part to save lives – brava! I like to think that Dr. Henderson would have approved, also.

Dr. Arun Mathews is Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Clinical Informatics. He serves as Medical Center Hospital’s Inpatient Chief Medical Officer/Chief Information Officer and has a passion for the history of medicine and its modern day applications.