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Will my flu shot protect me from the coronavirus? - (3/3/2020)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro 

Herb came into the pharmacy and asked the pharmacist, “That flu shot you gave me last fall. Will that protect me from this new Chinese virus? I’m getting concerned the more I watch the news.”

The pharmacist explained to Herb that the influenza vaccine does not protect anyone from the coronavirus that is crossing borders daily. No vaccine for the now-called COVID-19 virus exists yet and may not be available for 12 to 18 months. This gap in disease prevention concerns epidemiologists because the virus is presently so unpredictable and very contagious; thus, a vaccine may be challenging to develop. To compare, consider the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS. At the onset of the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s, if one caught the virus, the mortality rate was almost 100%. When the antiretroviral drugs were developed, the mortality rate dropped sharply. The 1918-19 Spanish flu, which killed approximately 3% to 5% of the human population, was no more aggressive than previous influenza strains. However, starvation, overcrowded medical camps and hospitals, and poor hygiene resulted in bacterial superinfection. These infections caused fatal cases of pneumonia to which most victims succumbed. Today, we have vaccines against influenza, and we can take precautions, such as hand washing and disinfecting surfaces. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that the mortality rate for influenza for the 2019-2020 season is approximately 0.1% and has killed 16,000 Americans (so far). Presently, the mortality rate for the coronavirus is 2% to 3% or 20 to 30 times more contagious than the influenza virus.
People need not panic! Despite the current administration’s hope to “wish away” the virus because it has severely wounded the stock market and may affect the upcoming presidential election, the general population is better informed now than in 1918. Most healthy adults can count on their immune systems to battle the infection. Nevertheless, the lack of cure or treatment for this coronavirus is most troublesome for older adults and those with conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and respiratory illnesses, such as emphysema. As with influenza, people who have died from COVID-19 did not die from the viral infection as such, but rather from opportunistic bacterial infections – example: pneumonia – that hit people with preexisting conditions.

Herb said to the pharmacist that the president expects the threat of catching the coronavirus will subside once spring comes. “No one knows this yet,” replied the pharmacist. The CDC says that the incubation period, from exposure to symptoms, is 14 days. In the US, the incubation period of influenza is 1 to 4 days, while the influenza season can last through the end of May. Time will tell whether the incidence of coronavirus sickness remains high, plateaus, or declines as we head toward warmer weather. 

Some medications can prevent or treat influenza symptoms, such as Tamiflu® and Xofluza®. However, no drug for coronavirus exists. Research is moving forward in that regard. Ideally, such a drug would be available before manufacturers can introduce a safe and effective vaccine for human use. 

"To answer your question, Herb, the flu shot will not prevent you from contracting coronavirus," the pharmacist said. “So my flu shot was for nothing,” lamented Herb. The pharmacist replied that one does not want the flu and coronavirus at the same time. Thus, the flu shot is imperative. Meanwhile, wash your hands with soap and hot water, sneeze into your elbow, stay home if you have a fever, and keep away from others who are ill.

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a registered pharmacist, medical writer, and principal at Rx-Press.com.

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