I have an appointment for a ‘flu jab next week.
The Internet is stuffed to the gills with stories of how ‘flu vaccines cause neurological conditions, yet the medical establishment are urging those of us with neurological conditions to get inoculated against influenza.
The UK Department of Health says:
People who have a liver disease, heart or chest problems, neurological conditions, those aged 65 or over and all pregnant women are among the groups being urged to make an appointment with their GP to have a flu jab if they haven’t already done so.
I got a letter inviting me to get a jab. I kind of ignored it for a while because, well, I hardly ever get ‘flu and I’m basically quite healthy. I wasn’t aware that Parkinson’s put me at greater risk. But I stumbled upon a discussion thread on the Parkinson’s UK forum that suggested it was a good idea, so I made an appointment (just squeezing in to the last available ‘flu clinic at my local GP’s surgery)… and started to investigate why.
As noted above, there are a lot of scare stories around about the vaccine causing neurological problems. There is also a fair few instances of bald statements to the effect that people with neurological conditions, like Parkinson’s, are more likely to catch the ‘flu, more likely to suffer badly with it, and more likely to get secondary infections.
As an aside, my experience this May seems to support this; I caught the ‘flu, which lasted longer than it did the only other time I’d had it, and then I managed to get a very nasty chest infection (an unwelcome novelty). But all of that could just have been a coincidence.
What is the evidence that people with Parkinson’s are more at risk from the ‘flu? I honestly couldn’t find anything concrete – just repeated assertions that it was so. Which, I have to say, is rather disappointing. I would be very interested if anyone could enlighten me as to how it was decided that we are at a higher risk (perhaps there is epidemiological evidence), and why scientists think this might be.
Edit (13th November 2011): The US version of the WebMD site suggests, on its page about swine flu, that “people with chronic conditions are more susceptible to severe flu, and are also more prone to flu complications, such as secondary infections and severe pneumonia.” Parkinson’s is a chronic condition (chronic means persistent, or long-lasting). The article also refers to the risk of a “compromised immune system”. I know that the immune system is implicated in Parkinson’s – i.e. that Parkinson’s is an autoimmune disease, but I’m not sure that this necessarily makes the immune system weaker (unless, of course, the drugs used to treat the condition affect the immune system; as far as I know, none of the common Parkinson’s drugs do this).
I still don’t know why a chronic condition might affect someone’s susceptibility to influenza just because it is chronic. Nor why some chronic conditions appear to be elevated above others in terms of risk (Parkinson’s seems to be a higher risk than, say, Crohn’s Disease* – at least, it appears on more lists of risky conditions).
*Crohn’s disease does not seem to be a risk factor in itself, but the immunosuppressive drugs sometimes used to treat it are.