Friends don’t let friends be dumb with vaccinations

By   /   February 20, 2014  /   15 Comments

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A very small number of people can’t get the vaccination. But if you have no medical issues preventing you, it is well worth it. You may not get the flu this year. You probably won’t. But if you do, assuming you don’t die from influenza, for 7-10 days, you are utterly incapacitated. And 10 days is twice the normal amount of paid sick leave most NZ workers are allowed.

symptoms of influenza


I was one of those people who never got the flu.

In all my school years, despite being rather allergic to dairy products, I had only a handful of days off due to illness (and at least one of these was memorably and naughtily faked). By the time I got to my 20s, my health was still excellent. My immune system was excellent. I was vegetarian, my routine blood tests always showed very decent iron and calcium and all the rest, and I didn’t smoke.

I wasn’t in any of the at-risk groups. Besides, I hardly ever even got a common cold. And I never got the flu.

Until I did.

I was a strong, healthy 25 year old, and when I got influenza, it came on frighteningly fast.

I was cheerfully finishing my last class for the day, at a tiny little school in the mountains in Japan, when I suddenly had to sit down. I went hot all over and my arms began to shake. My assistant teacher and I dismissed the class a few minutes early and made our way to the teachers’ room. It was March, and still quite cold, but within quarter of an hour I began to drip with sweat.

It was an hour’s drive back to the town hall I worked at. My driver kept looking at me.

You look like shit, he said.

I felt like shit. My ear holes hurt; my head pounded. My neck began spasming. It felt like warm jelly, setting and melting, setting and melting. A prickling sort of ache started in my hips and began to spread outwards.

By the time we reached the outskirts of town, my teeth were chattering. My driver took me straight home instead of back to the office. He had to help me up the stairs and in the door. He rolled out my futon, eased me onto it, and brought me a glass of water. He was concerned, so he sifted through the medical cabinet in my bathroom, and brought a thermometer out. My temperature was 38.8 degrees.

Take care, he said. And don’t come to work tomorrow. I’ll let everybody know you’re unwell. It’s probably a 24-hour virus. They’re common at this time of year. But keep an eye on your temperature.

24 hours later, I was still lying there.

My temperature was 40.9 degrees. My bones ached so much it felt as if they were turning into chalk. I was attacked by giant swarms of shivers. They made my entire body convulse with freezing cold, turning into searing heat that poured out of me. My muscles twitched in agony with each rapid bump of my heart. I vaguely wondered if I was having fits. I kept forgetting where I was. Every time I closed my eyes I hallucinated; I thought I must be in hospital. I had a growing feeling that I should be.

Then I began to cough.

It was like a deer call; hoarse and guttural. I croaked and coughed so much I vomited down my neck and couldn’t get up to clean it. My hair was full of sick; my ear was caked with vomit. I couldn’t even lift my arm to wipe it off my face.

I panted with panic. I coughed so hard I pissed myself. There was no way I could get up to go to the toilet. My limbs, organs, joints, bones, teeth; my entire body was thrumming with pain.

knew I was going to die. I was certain.

There was no way a person could feel this ghastly, this dreadful, this horrendous, and still stay alive.

My office eventually called my cellphone. I felt like I had been run over; that everything in me had been shaken to bits; like I was a sack of torn-aparts. They wanted to know if I would be at work today. I croaked yabai; that this was dangerous; that I was scared; that I had to go to the hospital. They said they were on their way.

While I waited, I called my mother in New Zealand to tell her how much I loved her, and that I was sorry I got sick, and that I thought I might die now.

We both wept.

I coughed my hacking cough so hard I thought my liver, or pancreas, or something else very serious would surely burst.

In the hospital, I was quarantined in a special waiting room. They took swabs and confirmed that it was influenza. The doctor prescribed painkillers, an antiviral medication, and sleep aids, and yelled at my colleagues for not wearing masks around me. Do you know how easy it is to catch this thing? With her coughing like that? A nurse brought masks for my colleagues to wear, had them do a special gargle, and made them sterilise their hands and faces (one of the colleagues who took me to the hospital that day still came down with influenza, and was hospitalised with pneumonia).

I lay on my futon for over a week. I couldn’t eat, though colleagues brought fruit, soups, and simple rice and tofu dishes, and helped me visit the bathroom and wash. At first, I vomited most fluids except sugary cold green tea, until day four when I began to keep water and miso soup down.

I returned to work after about nine or ten days, but I had lost 7kg. I was weak, gaunt, and had little concentration or energy. My fingernails were thin and papery.

I haven’t made many enemies over the years, but had I even the vilest of foes, I would not wish influenza on them.

Along with other deadly diseases now highly preventable through vaccination (whooping cough, measles, diphtheria, mumps, smallpox), annual flu epidemics historically killed many each year in colonial NZ, particularly from 1890. However, a terrifying 9,000 people (of 1.1 million: around 8-10%) died in the 1918 influenza pandemic within just three months. A quarter were Māori, who died at 7.3 times the rate of Pākeha people.

These days, about 400 people still lose their lives each year to influenza or its complications in New Zealand. Hospitalisation rates are high for toddlers, older people, pregnant people, those with respiratory or heart problems (like asthma or angina) and those with little or low natural immunity (like a friend of mine with Chinese heritage, and like some of my Samoan friends). Māori people still contract influenza and die from it at about 2.3 times the rate of Pākeha. While Pākeha people often have some genetic immunity due to historical European epidemics, this generally just means when they do catch the flu that the symptoms are a bit less bloody goddamn shittingly awful than they might otherwise be. But whities still can and do die from the flu. Actually, young and healthy people of all ethnicities die from flu worldwide; the 1918 pandemic mostly killed young, fit adults. In 2002, I had a flatmate contract pretty horrifying swine flu, and he was 24. This time last year in New York, with both flu vaccination and hand sanitiser use rates slumping for the first time since the swine flu epidemic, 19,000 people were hospitalised with flu: 5 times the usual number. Across the USA, around 40,000 people die each year, around 100 of them children, and hundreds of thousands go through what I went through. Some are left with brain damage from the fever. Most who succumb to flu are unvaccinated.

Never having had the flu doesn’t protect you from getting the flu next time. Having had the flu before doesn’t mean you won’t get a different strain in the future.

And getting a more “mild” experience of influenza infection due to strong genetic immunity is irrelevant. Even if you get it, and you have a fever and cough and you ache a bit, but essentially end up just fine, your chances of passing it on – to a baby, perhaps, or an elderly person, or a pregnant one, or somebody with compromised immunity – are extremely high. You don’t even know you’re spreading it until you have symptoms. As I learned, they come on astonishingly rapidly. And they suck.

I am so glad you guys don’t have to go through what I went through.

You can get vaccinated.

This excellent 2013 Herald article looks at the NZ flu vaccination situation in depth.

A very small number of people can’t get the vaccination. But if you have no medical issues preventing you, it is well worth it. You may not get the flu this year. You probably won’t. But if you do, assuming you don’t die from influenza, for 7-10 days, you are utterly incapacitated. And 10 days is twice the normal amount of paid sick leave most NZ workers are allowed. How will your household cope if you get the flu? What if more than one of you gets it? What if you all get it?

The contemporary vaccine is well over 80% effective, offers full protection from two weeks after inoculation, cannot give you the flu, and covers at least three major strains known to be the most likely to spread this season (including swine flu). The utter nonsense you hear from the very dangerous anti-vaccination brigade about how vaccinations “weaken the power of natural immunity” shows a rather dramatic lack of insight into how mammalian immunity actually works. Some immunity is inherited from your genes, birthing and breastfeeding, while some is from exposure; having had a disease already.

Natural immunity isn’t much help, though: while outright exposure to the influenza virus is likely to fully infect you, meaning you may experience the hell that I did, the indirect exposure from vaccination is very effective at protecting you. Exposing your immune system to safe (yes, safe) inactivated, killed or attenuated viral particles prompts it to get its shit ready. This in no way weakens your immunity. Vaccination strengthens the immune system so you can fight; so you don’t get so fucking sick if you are exposed to a dangerous pathogen.

In addition to vaccinations, hand-washing, covering coughs, and increased hygiene have all helped flu contraction rates go down in general, and these measures should be maintained, as should the consensus that you shouldn’t go to work if you’re sick. (Not that you can go to work! Generally, nobody who genuinely has the flu can go anywhere. Anybody who says they’re “fluey” or has “just a touch of the flu” doesn’t know what they’re talking about; they have a cold, or another common flu-like viral infection, meaning they just share some of the symptoms).

This year, thanks to my generous employers, along with other colleagues I am getting the flu vaccine for the first time. I haven’t had it before, as I worried about my historic egg allergies (there are traces of an egg-based ingredient in the vaccine), but having spoken with my doctor and a specialist I’ve decided that it is worth the small risk of a mild reaction.

I know first-hand that what could happen without the vaccination is far worse.

Influenza season is coming, and flu is a serious virus with serious effects. It has evolved and flourished exquisitely alongside humans and will continue to do so. But we can keep a step ahead of it, and potentially prevent its spread becoming the kind of pandemic that once killed one in ten people.

You might be eligible for a free vaccination. If not, I urge you to consider paying the small fee and having it anyway.

When I got influenza, I was lucky not to die.

But I’d almost rather die than ever contract it again.



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  1. I couldn’t agree more with every word you’ve said, BoT. (And thanks for the reminder; I have two vaccinations to get; a ‘flu and a Hep shot, both work related.)

    • Erwin Alber says:

      Rather you than me Frank. My friend Jan was crippled for life by the hepatitis B vaccine she got as part of her employment as a nurse a few years ago. She hasn’t been able to work since – one of many health workers this has happened to.

  2. Chloe King says:

    God I have asthma and in my final year of my post grad I got ALL 2 strains of the flu SERIOUSLY (it was the first time I forgot to get my flu vac I was really busy and exceptionally stressed) and fucken jesus it was horrible and yeah it came on so fast, one minute I was fine and then the next BAM I am bed ridden for 14 days (when you have asthma it last longer) I was so unwell could not get out of bed could barely do anything lost about 6kgs (I only weighed 45 from the stress of uni at the time). Then literally a week later after getting well I got stomach flu. Which lasts only 3-4 days but it is 3-4 days of none stop vomiting and thinking you might die. I get my flu shot religiously now, because the hell that is the flu is honestly horrible.

  3. JonL says:

    Quite agree BOT. Work provided a flu shot last year, the first I’ve had, but I reckon at 65 it was a good idea.
    At the moment I’m being flattened by suspected Whooping Cough!!!!which is extremely unpleasant ! but at least I can now shuffle around again (feeling like a 95 y.o.) which is an improvement on earlier in the week. Apparently Whooping Cough is on the rise again, as less people are vaccinated, more immigrants come from areas where they don’t have vacinnations and the oldies like us can’t rely on our youthful triple vaccines. If I ever recover, I’ll seriously consider a WC shot as well!

  4. fedup says:

    And then you have the alternate (idiotic view) at the standard from a Labour candidate no less.

    Go for a read if you want to be depressed.

    I so hope Chris Trotter is right and the Greens are going to become the true voice of the left along with Mana.

  5. Stephen says:

    A well written article, you are to be commended for it. I hope more people take your advice and get a flu vaccination.

  6. Merrial says:

    When I was about 10, I caught the Asian flu. There was an epidemic of it that year. I spent the entire August school holidays in bed, and feeling like death. I tried several times to get up and go places, but I’d feel so bad it was back to bed. Worse, my mother was away and I was staying with friends: nothing half as miserable as that.

    There was no flu vaccine then, but if there had been, I’d have had one like a shot the next year. For much of my adulthood, the usual winter viruses would, for me, morph into bronchitis. After a particularly nasty dose in the early 90s, I started having a flu shot annually. I’ve had only one bout of bronchitis in the last 20 years; curiously, I’ve rarely even had a cold, even though the vaccine isn’t designed to give protection against such infections.

    I never miss an opportunity to proselytise about the flu vaccination!

  7. NursesWhoVax says:

    Thank you for your account of your horrible ordeal with influenza. Hopefully your personal story causes at least one person to rethink their decision to skip their influenza vaccine. The flu can be deadly, as one only has to read the recent news article of young adults falling victim to this years strain.

  8. Heather G says:

    My son is very allergic to eggs and has had the flu vaccination every year for the past few years without any issues so you should be ok.

  9. Kate Kennedy says:

    I love my flu vaccination. Pop in every year for it. It’s all good.

  10. Bevan Morgan says:

    There is currently no larger sign of stupidity, anti-intellectualism, and confusion of science with being ‘the man’ than the anti-vaccination movement. Most conspiracy theorists are fairly harmless (other than supporting the status quo by not paying attention to real problems that can be solved), but this particular group of imbeciles (and that’s not an unfair term to use) is just downright evil as they are using the health of young children as weapons in their foolish, disproven, and scientifcally ridiculous crusade.

    And sadly, their complete and utter inability to grasp the basic philosophy behind peer reviewed data and science means that five minutes on google will have them believing these ‘facts’ about vaccination (that all started from one single article in the Lancet that has been revoked by the Lancet), and potentially killing children.

  11. Here’s an interesting experience from a couple of years ago…

    Back in 2012, on 23 April, I had several appointments.

    The first was at 10.45am to make a verbal submission before the Electoral Commission for the MMP Review. The venue was Level 1, 86 Customhouse Quay, Wellington CBD.

    It was a fascinating public event, and my speaking turn came soon after a rep from NZ First, and preceded right-wing blogger, David Farrar. (David – you really need to wear a tie and tuck your shirt in, at such events.)

    The next appointment was 1pm, at my health clinic for my ‘flu shot.

    At 6pm, we were going to attend a screening of Bryan Bruce’s doco, “Inside Child Poverty”, at the Roxy Cinema, in Miramar, Wellington.

    And if I had time, at 8pm I was going to watch Martyn Bradbury’s tv show (“Citizen A”?)

    By that evening, I was feeling absolutely grotty. Headachy. Numb joints. “Woolly” head…

    I guess the logical conclusion is that the ‘flu vaccine somehow gave me a mild version of influenza, right?

    Wrong. I never got the the shot.

    The queue of speakers at the Electoral Commission was such that my speaking time was closer to mid-day. There was no way I could make it back to the Hutt Valley in time for my vaccination.

    So I txt-messaged a colleague who kindly phoned the medical centre to cancel my appointment.

    I never received the vaccination. But if I had, the logical thought would have been to “connect” the vaccine with my mild-flu/cold infection later that night. (I also missed the screening at the Roxy Theatre, and Martyn’s TV show. I was a mess.)

    So there’s a salient lesson, I guess, about not jumping to conclusions, no matter how logical it may seem.

  12. Erwin Alber says:

    As far as I am concerned, the flu vaccine is like all others a dangerous fraud.

    I have long ago arrived at the inevitable conclusion that vaccination is an organised criminal enterprise dressed up as disease prevention by means of junk science.

    • Burnt Out Teacher Burnt Out Teacher says:

      0 deaths from flu vaccination last year in NZ, after 1.4million vaccinated, vs 400 deaths from influenza virus, almost entirely in the unvaccinated population.

      It is really disappointing that you (and so many people like you) belligerently arrive at “inevitable” anti-vaccination conclusions, while ignoring the actual conclusions arrived at by thousands of highly respected and knowledgeable professionals, all of whom are far better and more reliably informed than you are.

      As far as you are concerned, the flu vaccine is “a dangerous fraud?”

      Well, as far as I’m concerned, people like you are more dangerous to humanity than any modern, safe, highly effective vaccine ever will be.

      I only hope it doesn’t take the death of somebody close to you from preventable disease to make you change your arrogant mind.

    • The irony, Erwin, is that very few of us would be alive had it not been for advances in medical science. Yes, that includes vaccines.

      Relying on dodgy anti-immunisation websites is not an ideal way to gather information on this subject.

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