Don’t Wait to Vaccinate: American Lung Association Says “Get Your Flu Shot Today”

Norman Edelman, M.D., is Chief Medical Officer for the American Lung Association (ALA) and Vice President for Health Sciences and professor of medicine at SUNY Stony Brook University. A fellow of the American College of Physicians and the American College of Chest Physicians, he is a former member of the Editorial Boards for the Journal of Applied Physiology and the American Review of Respiratory Diseases and has published extensively in the field of pulmonary diseases and control of breathing. Dr. Edelman is consultant for scientific affairs for the American Lung Association and the author of the American Lung Association’s Family Guide to Asthma and Allergies. He has appeared on national news programs including Good Morning America, CBS Evening News, Dateline NBC and MSNBC. We recently spoke with Dr. Edelman about influenza, the importance of annual immunization and ALA’s “Faces of Influenza” campaign.

Q. What is influenza?

A. Influenza, also called “the flu,” is a contagious respiratory illness caused by a virus. It can cause mild to severe illness, and its complications can even lead to death. Influenza viruses spread from person to person through respiratory droplets caused by coughing and sneezing. Symptoms include fever, headache, extreme tiredness, dry cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose and muscle aches.

Q. What is influenza’s impact on health?

A. Combined with pneumonia, influenza is America’s eighth leading cause of death. Anyone can get influenza – In fact, an estimated one in five Americans gets the flu each year. Each year, approximately 226,000 people in the US are hospitalized with complications from influenza, and an average of 36,000 die from the disease and its complications. 

Q. How do complications arise, and why are they so serious?

A. Influenza is not the common cold. It is a serious illness. Complications can include viral or bacterial pneumonia, dehydration and worsening of chronic medical conditions such as asthma, congestive heart failure and diabetes. For children, the flu can lead to sinus problems and ear infections. While many flu infections will cause lost work and school days, for those at highest risk of complications, the results can be more severe. Individuals most at risk include children under age five, pregnant women, the elderly and those with chronic health problems or compromised immune systems. It’s also important that household contacts and caregivers of high-risk individuals – such as daycare providers, babysitters and grandparents – be vaccinated each year to avoid spreading influenza. This is especially important for those who are in contact with infants under six months of age, who are too young to be vaccinated.

Q. How effective is the flu vaccine?

A. While no vaccine can guarantee 100 percent protection to all individuals, the flu vaccine is highly effective, and annual immunization is the best way to protect against influenza. Vaccination typically begins in October and can continue through March. And while getting the flu vaccine early in the season may provide ideal protection, it is important to note that there are benefits obtained from receiving it late in the season.

Q. Why is it recommended to get the flu vaccine every year?

A. The types of influenza viruses circulating in the community change from year to year. Because of this, a new vaccine is made each year to protect against the most current strains.

Q. Are there lingering myths about influenza and the flu vaccine?

A. Some people believe that they can get influenza from the vaccine. The truth is, the injectable vaccine does not contain any of the live virus, so it is impossible to get the flu from immunization. In addition, the American Lung Association has conducted research that has concluded that the flu shot is safe for people with asthma, an important group that should get immunized each year.  Side effects from the flu shot may occur in some people, such as mild soreness, redness or swelling at the injection site, headache or low-grade fever – but the side effects are temporary, and the flu vaccine is safe and effective.

Q. What is the goal of the “Faces of Influenza” initiative?

A. The American Lung Association’s “Faces of Influenza” campaign aims to boost annual immunization rates by helping to increase awareness about the seriousness of influenza and to motivate Americans to get vaccinated throughout the season.  The American Lung Association wants to help individuals see themselves, loved ones, and others among the many “faces” of influenza…those individuals who fall into the target groups recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for annual vaccination. 

Q. Why did Jennifer Garner decide to get involved in the campaign?

A. Jennifer Garner is a successful actress, wife and mother, and places great value on her family’s health and well-being.  That includes protecting herself and her loved ones from influenza and its related complications through annual immunization.  Garner places personal importance on this effort, since nearly everyone in her life is a “face” of influenza, one of many people who should be immunized against influenza every year.

Q. How effective has this been in drawing much-needed attention to the issue?

A. The launch of the “Faces of Influenza” initiative in support of the 2006-2007 influenza season was very successful on a national and regional level.  Research following the first year of the campaign showed an increased awareness of the seriousness of influenza and need for vaccination.  The 2007-2008 campaign is designed to continue educational efforts nationally and locally throughout the year, especially encouraging vaccination throughout the fall, winter and into the spring. 

Q. What can partners in maternal and child health do to educate about influenza and the importance of annual immunization?

A. Professionals working with pregnant women, parents and families are on the front lines and key to spreading the message. The MCH community is perfectly positioned to pass along consumer education materials, such as those developed for the American Lung Association’s “Faces of Influenza” campaign. They can also help by promoting the American Lung Association’s Flu Clinic Locator, a one-stop online resource for finding immunizations in your local area. It’s never too late in the flu season to share the flu prevention message! 

For more information on the American Lung Association’s “Faces of Influenza” campaign, visit or the Association’s website at To speak to a lung health expert, call the American Lung Association Lung Helpline at 1-800-lungusa.