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Dangerous myths surround flu shots: experts

Victori Alvarez grimaces as she gets flu shot from pharmacist Shadi Doroudgar during health fair outside Capitol SacramenCalif. Wednesday Oct.

Victoria Alvarez grimaces as she gets a flu shot from pharmacist Shadi Doroudgar during a health fair outside the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2011. The shots were provided free of charge by the California Pharmacists Association, who sponsored the health fair. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

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Updated: January 23, 2012 3:40AM

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends flu shots for everyone over 6 months old. Yet relatively few people get them.

Last year, only 43 percent of Americans got a flu shot — and that was a record.

The reason, experts say, is a host of myths about what the flu is and how dangerous it can be. Among those:

Myth 1: The flu is just a bad cold

A cold is an annoyance. The flu kills up to 49,000 people a year and hospitalizes 200,000, the CDC says. Last year, 114 children died. Flu symptoms tend to appear suddenly, unlike a cold.

Myth 2: The flu shot causes the flu

About 35 percent of consumers think the flu vaccine can cause flu, a CVS survey found. But getting sick that way is impossible because the viruses in the flu shot are dead. The shot’s most common side-effect is a sore arm. The mist nasal-spray version of the flu vaccine contains weakened viruses, so they don’t cause severe symptoms, either.

Myth 3: New “combined” shots are riskier than older ones

This year’s shot — which protects against both H1N1 and seasonal flu — was made the same way as every other flu shot, says Randy Bergen of Kaiser Permanente in Walnut Creek, Calif. Every year, vaccine makers include viral strains that are most likely to cause illness. Typically, these include two influenza A strains — an H1N1 and an H3N2 — and a strain of influenza B.

Myth 4: Only sickly people need a flu shot

Half of consumers say flu shots are only for kids or sick people, the survey found. Actually, the most vulnerable members of society — newborns and those with weak immune systems — often can’t get flu shots. The only way to protect them is to vaccinate everyone around them, Bergen says.

Myth 5: Flu shots contain toxic chemicals such as mercury

About 14 percent of those surveyed said flu shots were dangerous. Concerns about mercury have revolved around a preservative called thimerosal, once commonly used in vaccines but mostly phased out since 2001. Today, no thimerosal is added to FluMist nasal spray or to flu shots from single-dose containers, says Paul Offit, an infectious-disease expert at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Companies add thimerosal to only flu vaccine stored in multi-dose vials, to prevent fungus or other potentially dangerous germs, Bergen says. There’s no evidence low levels of thimerosal in shots cause any harm, Offit says. Thimerosal contains ethyl mercury, not methyl mercury — the type that can cause brain damage, he says. Gannett News Service

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