Influenza, as we know, is a virus which, because of its infectiousness, can easily become an epidemic or even a pandemic in a short period of time. Though my own bouts of the flu have always been no more than a minor inconvenience, for the elderly, those with weakened immune systems, and perhaps also children, the flu can be fatal. During the Spanish flu of 1918, for example, millions of people died.

The process of making flu vaccine takes about six months. First, samples of that year's flu strains are obtained; these will be inoculated into chicken eggs. (The flu virus mutates at an extremely rapid rate, so new samples of the virus must be used each year. That's also why you're supposed to get a shot every year: this year's vaccine isn't the same as the one you got last year.) Canada's virus samples are obtained annually from the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and from the World Health Organization. The chickens that lay the eggs must be raised on farms that follow stringent guidelines for cleanliness, because chickens typically harbour bacteria like salmonella. The eggs are innoculated and incubated for several weeks, after which the contents are harvested, as they say, purified, and packaged.

Those with a history of Guillain-Barré syndrome or those allergic to eggs should not get flu shots. I'm not sure why the former is true, but the latter seems pretty obvious.

Public health officials in Ontario, Canada have decided that universal vaccinations are one way to combat the flu in this province, and so for the second year in a row this province is the only jurisdiction in the world to offer free flu shots to all its citizens over six months of age. Last year vaccinations were offered in malls, offices, hospitals, clinics, and doctor's offices; this year the campaign is focusing on the workplace, both because people surveyed last year said this would be the most convenient, and because one of the big arguments in favour of vaccination - at least in the government's eyes - is the high cost of lost productivity: $500 million annually, they estimate. Ontarians can still get a shot at their doctor's office or clinic, however.

The data are not yet analyzed that will tell how many people actually got vaccinated last year (I didn't). And the benefit of universal inoculation is much harder to assess. Though the incidence of flu outbreaks in nursing homes may have decreased by as much as 97%, the greatest overall boon may not be realized until the next flu pandemic, which epidemiologists expect to occur soon.

I won't bother going into too many details of the process of making flu shots, that has already been done for me very well by anthropod. What I do feel I needs to be added are some urban legends about flu shots, and why they are false, as well as questions some may have about the debunking. I address them in order from the reasonable misconception to the outright ludicrous.

  • URBAN LEGEND 1: "You will get sick from the flu shot for a little while, but it's not as bad as the flu itself.":

    This is impossible. Influenza, also known as the rhinovirus vaccines contain dead flu cells. They cannot reproduce, they cannot attack other cells, and they cannot make you sick.

    So how is it supposed to do any good?

    The outside of the virus is what mutates each year in the flu strains. Antibodies in your system are more like puzzle pieces Each one can only fit a certain type of connection, and if that connection changes, it is useless. The virus is detected as a hostile foreign organic object in the body, and the body produces custom-tailored antibodies to combat it. Thus, when the dead flu cells are injected into you, antibodies are made to fight already dead cells.

    So what's the point?

    The point is that antibodies linger in your system for a very long time, but also take longer to make than it does to get infected. If you've produced enough then there is a very good chance that when you do get the flu virus, the antibodies will already be present to fight it.

    But I know this guy who once got sick after the shot!

    Yes, we all know 'this guy who once...'. But assuming he wasn't lying, it can happen for a few reasons. One is that he might have been allergic to eggs, which the viruses are cultivated in. Another is that he might have already been infected with flu before the shot, or gotten a different illness unrelated. And, for those who allow merit to the idea of mind over matter, it is quite a simple thing to convince yourself that you have taken ill, and have your body react as a result.

  • URBAN LEGEND 2: "The virus mutates too quickly for anyone to make a real antibiotic before flu season.":

    Yes and no. There are three individual types of influenza, A, B and C. They are all transmitted through airborne droplets, yet they vary in virulence. Types A and B are the most common and are the strains responsible for the influenza epidemics that occur every year. Type A influenza mutates fairly rapidly, while type B and C are basically stable.

    Due to the incredible mutation rate of the virus there is a certain amount of guesswork that goes into finding the correct strain for the upcoming season. The effectiveness of vaccination can literally change from year to year depending on whether or not the strain the infects the public was correctly chosen to be put into the vaccine. Each new year there are several new strains of the virus which are completely different from previous strains. These new strains are not necessarily rendered inactive by previous vaccinations. Therefore, each year there needs to be a new vaccination to fight influenza. Scientists must postulate what the most widespread strains of the virus will be for the upcoming flu season. This is done by extensive research and a worldwide surveillance system. Each year's influenza vaccine contains three virus strains (usually one type A and one type B) representing influenza viruses believed likely to circulate in the United States in the upcoming winter. Those will be the ones they cultivate into the antibiotics.

    So why bother if it's just guessing?

    For several reasons. One, it's not just guessing. They don't throw a dart at a board and pick the strain-o-the-year. Read the above again. A lot of research goes into it. Two, roughly 20,000 people in the USA die each year from the flu. There have also been three pandemics: The Spanish Flu, The Asian Flu and The Hong-Kong Flu over the last 100 years which wiped out hundreds of thousands of people at a time. It is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States according to various death statistics pages. Finally, not doing something just because it isn't 100% protection is plain idiocy. It's like not wearing a condom for the sole reason that you might get a disease anyway. My favorite reason for getting a flu shot is that the company usually pays for it, and it gives you an excuse to take a break.

  • URBAN LEGEND 3: "It's actually a government plot to install tracking devices/mind controlling drugs/secret diseases/yard gnomes within the unsuspecting human body.

    I wouldn't even put tripe like this in the writeup except I've hear so many variations of it from people that I'm just going to present a little common sense and leave it at that. Flu deaths and sick leave from flu results in massive monetary tax losses between $500 million and $2 billion each year. This is more than enough incentive to give out flu shots each year. It is estimated that the United States Government makes $50 profit per innoculated citizen in regained productivity and work time. That alone is incentive to stick us with needles. Keep in mind also that people don't just take sick time from non-government business, nor is it strictly limited to the working class. Ex-president George W. Bush Sr. had a case of the flu so bad one year that he threw up all over the Prime Minister of China.

    For those of you who are convinced of alterior motives, there is no help for you, but a bit of logic: No one takes your Social Security Number, no one checks your ID. No one takes your picture, no one takes a blood sample. So there is no way for them to really know you are who you say you are. Since these things are done in massive droves all at once, this rules out the idea of a tracking device being transmitted in this way. If they really wanted to track you, they would do something much easier. This also rules out spreading "secret diseases" because the variables are too numerous to be anywhere near controllable, and it would come back to bite them.

    As far as mind controlling drugs... if you have become so media-enraptured that you are convinced the US Government is nothing but aliens and conspiracies, then you don't need the mind controlling drugs. Your TV and the internet already owns you.

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