41 percent of Americans don’t plan on getting a flu shot — don't be one of them

If you predictably knew that an event was about to occur in which thousands of Americans would be killed and you had a way to diminish the impact, would you do it? I know I and many people would, but apparently 41 percent of Americans disagree. What I am referring to is not some missile shield or tsunami warning system, but something much more important: the influenza vaccine. A new study by the University of Chicago reveals that in November, as we stand on the precipice of the flu season, 41 percent of American adults are not vaccinated against this season’s flu strains and do not plan to be. Making matters worse, 39 percent of those studied don’t plan to vaccinate their children.

What happens with low flu vaccination rates  

Look no farther back in time than last season to understand what can happen when flu vaccination rates are low. The 2017-18 season was the most severe on record, even topping the last pandemic in 2009-10 in some measures, killing 80,000 Americans including 185 children and requiring the hospitalization of over 700,000 people. The adult vaccination rate last year, not simply a coincidence, was the lowest on record at 37.1 percent. Of children who died, 80 percent were not vaccinated.

Unfortunately, memory of even the most serious infectious diseases often fades.

What prevents people from getting the flu vaccine

 

Failure to accept last season’s experience as anything other than a thorough debunking of any doubt as to the virus’s severity requires a willful ignorance. In fact, the University of Chicago study confirms the usual dubious suspects behind low vaccination rates against influenza again reared their misinformed heads: underestimation of the severity of flu, side effects, getting the “flu” from the vaccine, and lack of confidence in the protection afforded by the vaccine.

Though not perfect, the flu vaccine is the only preventative measure that exists against influenza. In the best years, the vaccine is 60 percent protective against contracting the flu and in some years it is lower. However, even if you get a breakthrough flu infection after receiving that season’s vaccine, your flu is less likely to be severe, less likely to result in hospitalization, less likely to progress to pneumonia, and less likely to be fatal — all thanks to the cascading benefits of vaccination.

Vaccinated individuals are less likely to be contagious and even less likely to get secondary ear infections. The vaccine is an unequivocal value and incremental improvements such as the high dose and adjuvanted (i.e., immune stimulant) versions targeted to the elderly, and recombinant and/or cell-based versions, have improved efficacy.

Side effects, when they occur, are generally mild and restricted to arm soreness and a day or so of aches. The nasally-administered flu vaccine, approved for use in those between the ages of 2 and 50, has even fewer side effects. Additionally, the flu vaccine cannot give you the flu.

Let me repeat: the flu vaccine cannot give you the flu.

Why is it impossible? None of the vaccines contain a fully functional flu virus. Those who believe they got the flu from the vaccine either have the flu they were incubating (it takes two weeks for the flu vaccine to confer protection) or the flu they got after vaccination but before vaccine protection developed. There’s also a chance they have some other respiratory virus that has overlapping symptoms with flu.

Don’t be one of the 41 percent

This year’s flu season has just begun. With a peak expected in February, there is still time to protect yourself and your family. While it is too early to predict how severe the season will be, already at least 5 children have died from flu. The easiest way to prevent this perennial killer from running roughshod through our population is a simple flu shot or spray. The life you save may be your own.  

Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician, is a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Follow him on Twitter at @AmeshAA.