McKenna’s story: Why you still need an imperfect vaccine

November 6, 2018
McKenna's story | Texas Children's Hospital
Image courtesy of Paul Kuntz

This is McKenna and her mother, Paula. McKenna, an asthmatic since the age of 5, is a 16-year-old high school student who nearly died last year from influenza. McKenna and Paula always knew asthma would put McKenna at higher risk for complications from the flu, but she never became seriously ill. This all changed last year. 

Within a few days of developing flu-like symptoms, McKenna’s breathing became much more labored as her symptoms worsened. Paula rushed McKenna to Texas Children’s Hospital, where she was quickly admitted. McKenna’s medical team was unable to get her breathing under control and she was moved to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. Soon after, she was placed on a ventilator. McKenna’s condition continued to decline and she was placed on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, less than 24 hours after her admission to Texas Children’s. ECMO is an advanced life support treatment that mimics the natural function of the heart and lungs, allowing patients to recover from underlying illnesses.

As McKenna fought for her life, Paula learned the culprit of her daughter’s sudden and severe illness: influenza, more commonly known as the flu. After six difficult days, McKenna was finally taken off ECMO. A week later, she was discharged to complete her recovery at home. Although McKenna made a full physical recovery, she now struggles with anxiety, depression and difficulty sleeping.

Neither McKenna nor Paula could’ve anticipated just how severely the flu would impact their lives.

“I thought to myself, it’s just the flu,” recalls Paula. “How could it be this bad?”

While Paula and McKenna usually get their flu shots each year, unfortunately, it had simply slipped their minds that year.  

Every year, millions of individuals are affected by the flu. In last year’s particularly severe flu season, an estimated 48.8 million people were sick with influenza. While infants, the elderly, pregnant women and those with chronic medical conditions (like McKenna) are at higher risk of developing complications from the flu, healthy individuals are often severely impacted as well.

In fact, just a couple weeks ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported the first pediatric death from influenza for the 2018-2019 flu season. This child was healthy but, tragically, unvaccinated. For those of us who work in the medical and public health communities, this is a fierce and all-too-familiar reminder of how perilous the next few months of flu season might be. Last year, an estimated 80,000 individuals died from influenza in the United States. Of those, 180 were children. This is the highest death rate from influenza in nearly 40 years.

And yet, each year, millions of people remain unvaccinated for influenza. Some fail to take the flu seriously. Others are simply apathetic toward the vaccine. Many erroneously believe they can increase their immunity through other methods, such as vitamins, probiotics or digestive health supplements. The list goes on and on.

Regardless of where you stand on the spectrum of beliefs related to the flu and flu vaccine, please hear me out. The flu can be deadly, and the flu vaccine is singlehandedly the best way to protect you and your children.

This can be a hard truth for some people to believe and accept. After all, the current flu vaccine doesn’t work nearly as well as we would like – certainly not as well as our other vaccines. However, until we develop a better vaccine, we must shift our mindset about the current flu vaccine.

Let me explain.

It has been said before, and it remains true – vaccines are victims of their own success. In regards to the flu, this is uniquely true. People expect more from their vaccines, and understandably so. We expect the vaccine to protect us from acquiring the disease for which it’s designed to protect. For example, prior to development of the Hib (Haemophilus influenza type B) vaccine, the disease affected approximately 25,000 children each year. Following the introduction of the vaccine, rates of Hib plummeted and the disease is rarely reported today.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the flu vaccine, we need a better vaccine – one that prevents influenza entirely, for a lifetime. Our medical and scientific communities are well aware of this need; there’s no question about it. The only question – what are you going to do with the vaccine we do have? Despite its imperfections and lackluster effectiveness at times, it still serves a very important purpose. Simply put, the flu vaccine can prevent you from dying from the flu.

No, it may very well not prevent you from getting the flu, but our expectations of the vaccine must align with the reality of the vaccine itself. As Paula eloquently states, “It’s the flu, and it almost killed my daughter. It’s so important to protect yourself and your children. The flu shot isn’t perfect, but some protection is better than none.”

If you’re interested in learning more about the Immunization Project at Texas Children’s Hospital, click here.

Post by:

Rachel M. Cunningham, MPH