Around this time every year, I’m faced with the task of explaining to patients and their families why it’s important to get an annual influenza vaccine. I am an infectious diseases physician at the Children’s…
Around this time every year, I’m faced with the task of explaining to patients and their families why it’s important to get an annual influenza vaccine. I am an infectious diseases physician at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in the Bronx, New York, and I care for children who are especially vulnerable to severe illness with the influenza virus. Over the past several years of practice, I’ve found that immunizations are one of the health care interventions that have the greatest potential to benefit individuals and society — but also the most heavily guarded by personal belief systems. Here are some of the concerns that patients and family members have expressed to me:
“Why should I get a flu shot when I’m healthy? Even if I get the flu, I won’t get that sick.”
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recently released the influenza data for the 2017-2018 flu season. There were an estimated 80,000 deaths in the U.S. attributed to influenza or associated complications within the last year. The most recent CDC report indicates that 183 children succumbed to influenza. There are many factors that contribute to how sick an individual will become if he or she gets the flu. We know that early childhood, older age and pregnancy are risk factors for severe influenza. We also know that certain medical conditions — such as diabetes, extreme obesity, asthma, heart disease or illnesses that suppress the immune system (like HIV, cancer or chronic steroid use) — increase a person’s risk of severe illness with the flu. However, it’s also true that healthy people can have an overwhelming response to influenza infection and can become critically ill and even die from influenza. As health care providers, we have no way of knowing who will have this kind of a response, so we offer the best prevention we can through vaccination.
“The flu vaccine isn’t even 100-percent effective, so why should I get it?”
While it’s true that the annual effectiveness at preventing influenza varies year to year, depending on many factors, it’s clear that even a partially effective vaccine is better than no vaccine at all. Of the pediatric influenza deaths reported for the 2017-2018 season, it’s estimated that 80 percent of those children were not immunized for the season. Influenza vaccine must be given every year because of the change in the circulating strain. A vaccine given for one season should not be expected to provide protection for the following season.
“I don’t get the flu shot because I got it a few years ago, and I still got the flu.”
If you’ve gotten the flu after getting vaccinated in the past, there are a few possible explanations for this: 1.) it takes your body about two weeks to fully develop immunity after vaccination, and you could have been exposed to the flu before you developed immunity or 2.) the vaccine is not 100-percent effective, and you may still get the flu. If that’s the case, it’s very likely that you’ll have a milder illness than you would have if you didn’t get the vaccine.
“I don’t get the flu shot because it gives me the flu.”
The vaccine can cause a low-grade fever and body aches that might make you feel like you have the flu. However, this is likely your body’s immune response to the vaccine and is part of the process of building immunity to the actual flu. Generally, these symptoms only last one to two days, and there is no influenza virus in your system. There is no flu shot that can give you an actual influenza infection. There are several different vaccines available for the 2018-2019 season in the U.S. The best vaccine for you will depend on your age and your underlying medical condition. The most important thing is that anyone over the age of 6 months should be offered an appropriate flu vaccine.
“I don’t get the flu shot but my kids do.”
I often hear this from families of chronically ill children. While it’s great that kids are being protected, we must all understand that those of us who are healthy can also carry the influenza virus and pass it along to others. It’s not enough to vaccinate the most vulnerable people in our community. Healthy people need to get vaccinated, as well, to protect the ones we love: our children, our grandparents, our coworkers and our neighbors. As a society, we’re never more connected than when a communicable disease spreads through our communities. Fortunately, we have vaccines to prevent some of the burden of disease that we share. While they’re not perfect, they can be lifesaving.