Flu Season Fence Sitting



Winter comes every year, and so does influenza. The influenza virus causes a predictable epidemic every year that sweeps through our country and takes the lives of 12,000-56,000 people. Many people are surprised to learn that influenza is consistently within the top ten causes of deaths in our country each year. Doctors have little to offer in effective treatments to combat the virus- preventing the disease with vaccination is our best defense.

Fortunately, when I recommend the influenza vaccine most of my patients receive it, and in doing so reduce their risk of severe illness. However, every year there are a number of patients who turn down the vaccine, patients that readily get other vaccines without a second thought. While they may see the benefit of vaccines in general, they sit on the fence when it comes to the flu shot. From my perspective, patients turn down the vaccine because of personal experiences, emotions, or the influence of social media. Unfortunately, science does not factor into the decision.

With this in mind, for those who are uncertain about the influenza vaccine for whatever reason or source of information, please consider these common situations and hear out my science-based response. Mull it over for the next time the influenza vaccine is encouraged for you.

“I have never had the flu. I don’t need it.”

For most years, any one individual is not likely to get ill with influenza. However, all it takes is one severe influenza infection to result in hospitalization or death. I like to think about this as I think about the use of seatbelts. Almost everyone puts on a seatbelt when they climb into a car to drive on the interstate freeway, and yet it is rare to be involved in a serious accident. We wear seatbelts to save our life in the unlikely event we are in a serious car crash. The same is true for influenza and the influenza vaccine: most of the time you won’t get influenza, but if you do, the vaccine could save your life.

“My relative/friend/someone-I-know got the flu shot and was sick all winter.”

The flu shot does not protect us from the many common cold viruses that circulate every winter. Most illnesses that occur after the flu shot – whether it is the next day or a month later- have nothing to do with vaccination. The influenza vaccine is not a live virus and cannot cause disease. The influenza vaccine should not be your scapegoat.

“I heard on the news that the vaccine is only 40% effective. I don’t want to bother getting it if it won’t help.”

Within this comment is a very important notion to discuss and clarify. It is true the influenza vaccine is not as effective as most of the other vaccines we have available. For example, the Measles vaccine is 97% effective in preventing Measles while the influenza vaccine is only about 40% effective most years. The very important concept to share is that protection from the flu vaccine is not an all-or-nothing, back-or-white situation. The vaccine almost always provides some level of protection. A better way to think about immunity from the influenza vaccine is in degrees or shades of color. For example, the vaccine may not prevent you from getting sick with influenza, but it may make the difference between missing work and spending a week in the hospital. Similarly, it may make the difference between becoming hospitalized verses respiratory failure and death. In other words, although the vaccine is not as good as we would like, it can still make a critical difference to save yours or your loved ones life.

If you are on the fence about the flu shot, think it over. The influenza virus comes every year without fail and causes thousands of deaths. The vaccine is our best defense and may save your life. Sitting on the fence won’t help you fight influenza, but the vaccine will.