Labor Day has come and gone, and a harbinger of the coming winter is the sign you see in virtually every pharmacy, harassing you in big, bold letters to GET YOUR FLU VACCINATION HERE. Now you are going to get it from me, too. Get your vaccination. Many healthcare plans cover it for free, so why wouldn’t you?
First, a little background: Influenza, a.k.a. the flu, is caused by two viruses, influenza A and influenza B. Every year there are different strains of these viruses lurking on doorknob surfaces, in air droplets (from coughs and sneezes) and other sneaky places. When we get the flu, it usually manifests itself in fever, body aches, dry, hacking cough, headache, sore throat, runny nose, weakness and general misery (along with the vague wish to roll over and die). After about a week you usually regain your will to live, although that cough may linger for another week or so.
While many people in modern society treat the flu as just another annoying inconvenience, influenza is no trifling matter. Recently, people have been hysterical about ebola. Ebola has nothing on the flu, a strain of which, known as the Spanish flu, killed upwards of 40 million people worldwide in 1918, more than all the deaths caused by WWI. Even today, modern medicine notwithstanding, up to 500,000 people died from influenza (and complications like pneumonia resulting from the flu) in the 2013-'14 flu season. As many as 36,000 of those cases were in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Contrast this with zero North American ebola cases.
Even if you shrug off the fact that sometimes people die of the flu, why would you want to risk suffering even a week’s misery if the yearly vaccine minimizes the chances? Here are five bogus excuses often used to avoid the flu shot.
1. “Vaccines are dangerous and give kids autism.” One reason people avoid the flu shot might come from anti-vaccine propaganda widespread in the media, mostly on the Internet. Anti-vaxxers have sown vaccine fear over a wide swath of the western world. In 1998, a British study by Andrew Wakefield purported to show a link between vaccines and autism. While the study focused on childhood vaccinations, the fearful link between vaccines and danger spread to other kinds of vaccines as well. Despite the fact that the study was definitively discredited and Dr. Wakefield was disgraced, the misinformation lives on, fueled by Hollywood celebrities like Jenny McCarthy, Bill Maher and Jim Carrey.
2. “I got the vaccine one year and it didn't work.” Some people who believe flu vaccines don’t work cite the time they got the vaccine and still got the flu. This can happen. Flu vaccines are reformulated every year, based on the best guesses of flu experts as to which strain of flu will be most prevalent that season. It is not an exact science, and while the predictions are often correct, sometimes the scientists get it wrong. When that happens, the vaccine you have received does not protect you against the strain that is actually out there, and you might get the flu despite the vaccination. Still, the vaccine is effective about 60% of the time. Better odds than no vaccine.
In many cases, people mistakenly think they have the flu when they really have a bad cold. Cold symptoms are similar in many ways to the flu. A flu shot will not prevent colds, which are caused by completely different viruses (over 200 of them, which is the main reason we don’t have a cold vaccine). Usually you can tell the difference between colds and the flu by the high fever, body aches and the speed at which actual flu symptoms come on. Other people will point to the “stomach flu” they once came down with despite being vaccinated. The truth is there is no such thing as stomach flu. Vomiting, nausea and diarrhea are not usual flu symptoms. The so-called stomach flu is caused, most likely, by a norovirus, not influenza. The flu vaccine won’t protect you from noroviruses (or food poisoning, another often misinterpreted “stomach flu”).
3. “I have egg allergies.” This one is not completely bogus, but it is overused. While flu vaccines are prepared in eggs, only those people with severe anaphylactic reactions to eggs need to avoid the vaccine. Lesser reactions to eggs like hives or mild rashes pose no danger and are not a reason to avoid the vaccine, as long as the vaccinated are observed for 30 minutes after the vaccine is administered.
4. “I don’t get the flu.” Certain superhumans among us claim they “never get the flu.” The first answer to that is “never say never.” This could be your unlucky year! Beyond that there is a larger public health reason to get vaccinated—for the sake of the people around you. Some people are infected by the flu virus, and for whatever reason, do not suffer symptoms (up to 30% of flu virus carriers display no symptoms). Despite their lack of symptoms, they can still be carriers of the virus, and as such, threaten those around them. Infecting children, pregnant women and the vulnerable elderly are all to be avoided. (And, by the way, pregnancy is also no reason to avoid the vaccination, and in fact is vital to protect mother and fetus from serious flu effects.)
5. “The flu vaccine can give you the flu.” The idea that you can actually get the flu from a flu vaccine is another myth that has been hanging around for far too long. It is simply not true. Flu shots are made from flu viruses that are inactivated (basically, dead). Nasal spray flu vaccinations are prepared with live viruses, but they are altered to remove the part of the virus that makes you sick, and are not infectious. While a little arm soreness (from the shot), and for some people, mild fever and aches might occur, these symptoms are short-lived and nowhere in the remote vicinity of full-blown flu. If you get sick right after you get the flu vaccine, it wasn't the shot that infected you. The vaccine takes up to two weeks to fully immunize you, so it is possible to be infected in that window of time. You may also have been infected immediately prior to getting the vaccine. The vaccine does not kill flu viruses already present in your system. It prevents future infections."
Bottom line, children and the elderly are most at risk for death or severe repercussions from influenza. Vaccinating them, and yourself, is the best way to assure maximum protection from misery, and worse scenario, heartbreak.