In 1976, I got the swine flu shot — the first — and last flu shot I ever had. About a half-day after getting it, I had to go to bed and couldn’t get up for about four days. I thought I was going to die. When I finally got up, I saw the doctor again who said, “Never, ever in your life get a flu shot again.” So, I haven’t.
However, with the pandemic going on, I would like to get the flu shot. But my question is are shots the same as they were then? Should I risk it?
The short answer is get your seasonal flu vaccine. Today’s flu vaccines are safe and nothing like the vaccine you received in 1976.
You were a participant in the 1976 campaign to mass-vaccinate the public against a strain of swine flu. This strain of influenza caused hundreds of respiratory infections at an army post in New Jersey. A widespread outbreak was feared because the virus had similarities to the 1918 pandemic flu that killed over 100 million people worldwide.
In response, President Gerald Ford initiated the Swine Flu Immunization Program in spring 1976. Unfortunately, the vaccine was associated with a rare but serious side effect, Guillain-Barré syndrome.
Guillain-Barré syndrome results from the body’s immune system attacking the peripheral nervous system resulting in weakness and sometime paralysis. Further outbreaks of this swine flu never materialized, and the program was suspended in December 1976.
Interestingly, that swine flu vaccine contained a live attenuated virus given as an injection. Although the vaccine virus multiplied in the body, it was weakened to keep it from causing illness. Unfortunately, this wasn’t always the case. None of the current vaccines are related to that swine flu vaccine.
Nowadays, most seasonal flu vaccines contain only pieces of the virus that are unable to multiply. The exception is the nasal vaccine spray for healthy children and adults up through 49 years of age. It has a long history of use and has proven safe.
You should receive a seasonal flu vaccine. Specific vaccines are best for different age groups. Fluzone high dose is recommended for people 65 and older. It’s four times stronger than the standard vaccine and more effective in seniors.
Flublok is recommended for individuals 50 to 64 years of age. It’s 30 percent more effective than the standard vaccine in this age group. Individuals younger than 50 years of age should receive the standard vaccine. It’s important to get vaccinated each year because the four strains they protect against change from year to year.
In summary: The current flu vaccines aren’t similar to the swine flu vaccine of 1976; you should absolutely get your flu vaccine (and this cannot be emphasized enough with the current pandemic); and the best vaccine for you depends on your age.
Of note: The reader received her flu vaccine and reported only mild arm soreness, which was resolving three days later. She plans on being vaccinated annually.
Vaccine Smarts is written by Sealy Institute for Vaccine Sciences faculty members Drs. Megan Berman, an associate professor of internal medicine, and Richard Rupp, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Medical Branch. For questions about vaccines, email firstname.lastname@example.org.