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Flu vaccinations don't always keep the bug away

Friday - 1/11/2013, 4:15am  ET

Paula Wolfson, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - Doctors are noticing a disturbing trend this flu season - an unusually large number of people who received flu vaccinations are still getting sick.

"That seems to be a trend that we are seeing in our practice, and it fits with what people are seeing nationwide," says Dr. John Dooley, a physician at Foxhall Internists in D.C.

The process of making a vaccine takes time and guesswork. Scientists look at viruses emerging in the Southern Hemisphere and predict which ones will travel north when our flu season arrives.

For the 2012-2013 season, scientists created a vaccine that protects against three strains. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 91 percent of the viruses circulating today are covered under this vaccine.

"The fact the vaccine is not completely protective is not a surprise," Dooley says. "No vaccine is."

According to Dooley, some of the people who receive a flu shot and then get sick weeks or months later, simply were not able to create an adequate immune response.

However, most of the time, people who come down with the flu even after the vaccine are the unlucky ones who picked up one of the rare strains not covered by the vaccine.

That is exactly what happened to Dave Byrd of Manassas, Va.

"I got sick all at once. I was fine when the 'Skins beat Dallas, but between the end of the game and the next morning, I was in bad shape," he says.

For a moment, despite the sudden aches and chills, he thought it couldn't be the flu.

"I had a flu shot and I thought it was supposed to prevent this, but I guess it didn't," Byrd says.

While the vaccine did not protect him from the flu, it did cut the duration of the illness, significantly. Byrd says the severe symptoms only lasted a day.

Dooley says when patients question the need to get a flu shot, he tells them the vaccine is not 100 percent perfect, but it is still very good.

"For the very large majority of people who get the vaccine, they are well protected such that they won't get the flu if exposed," Dooley says.

"If they do get the flu, they will get a much milder case or shorter duration."

Dooley says it is always a challenge to get people immunized against the flu, a challenge that may be tougher during the next go around, especially if others cite the experience of vaccinated persons still getting the flu.

However, despite catching the flu this year, Byrd says he'll still get a flu shot next year.

"Flu is nothing to mess with," Byrd says. "I will definitely get a flu shot."

Byrd's statement may be the lasting message of the 2012-2013 flu season. Dooley says a relatively severe strain is hitting a lot of people hard this year, and is sending patients a blunt reminder.

"It reminds them that the flu is not a trivial illness," Dooley says. "And that even an imperfect vaccine is much better than no vaccine at all."

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