As hard as pediatricians and other healthcare professionals try to support the public health imperative of immunizing the population against influenza each year, we are apparently not trying hard enough. The percentage of Americans receiving flu vaccines hasn’t budged the past three flu seasons. The CDC goes deep in its breakdown of the statistics, but here are the basic flu vaccine coverage numbers in the United States for the 2016-2017 influenza season:
ALL people (>/= 6 months of age) — 46.8%.
Children (6 months-17 years) — 59.0%
Adults (>/= 18 years) — 43.3%
These numbers change up or down, by a percentage point or two, each year, but have been pretty stagnant in recent years. In spite of attempts to make getting a flu shot convenient (Pediatric Alliance offices offer flu clinics; some provide flu vaccines to parents, too), inexpensive (most, if not all, public and private insurance plans pay for the vaccine), and pain-free, we seem to be stuck. (Okay, we haven’t mastered that just yet. There are no ouch-less alternatives to flu vaccines this year, with intranasal FluMist taking another season on sabbatical while researchers try to make it more effective. But we do have “Buzzy”!) Pediatric Alliance typically does better than the national average: 62.4% two years ago and 63.3% last year. Previous attempts on The PediaBlog here, here, and here have tried their best to improve these numbers.) Nicole Specter tries to move the needle (no pun intended!) by speaking with real experts who happen to agree with the overwhelming consensus among medical professionals — GET A FLU SHOT! Here’s why:
Optimally, the flu vaccine will prevent you from getting the flu, but that’s actually secondary to the primary goals of the vaccine which are to prevent epidemic and to reduce the cases of severe flu infection.
“At its most effective the flu shot would prevent you from getting the flu, but really when you look at studies, the purpose of the vaccine is to reduce the number of severe flu illnesses that require going to the hospital,” says Chang. “In other words if you get the flu vaccine, the real goal is even if you do get the flu that you are not as sick as you would be if you had not gotten the vaccine.”
Basically, if your immune system is primed to deal with the virus, should it still attack you, you likely won’t develop a severe flu infection.
Then, there is taking one for the team — the “team” being the rest of us:
Another purpose of the flu vaccine: not everyone can get it, so it’s important that people who can receive it do so that “we build herd immunity,” says Dr. Tewari.
“A lot of patients who have immunological diseases, or an organ transplant, have cancer or other conditions may not be strong enough to get a flu vaccine,” Tewari adds. “But if those around them are vaccinated, we develop a herd immunity, so that hopefully the few people who can’t get the vaccine will not get infected.”
The vast majority of people over the age of six months are A-OK to get a flu shot. Both Dr. Chang and Dr. Tewari insist that there are very few exceptions.
Specter presents some helpful facts (flu vaccines take 2-3 weeks to fully prime your immune system, and they provide protection for 6-12 months), debunks unhelpful myths (the flu vaccine contains proteins from the influenza virus and not the actual virus itself, so you can’t get the flu from a flu shot), and reminds victims and first-responders living through natural disasters not to delay in getting their yearly poke:
“Hurricane Harvey and the other natural disasters affecting many have brought dirty water, and viruses are not visible like mold so we don’t even know what’s in the air,” says Tewari. “People have been displaced, are living in shelters, wearing borrowed clothes and eating donated food. You just don’t know what you’re being exposed to. Plus, when you’re stressed your immunity gets lowered.”
So don’t delay — get a flu shot today. You’ll be getting it for yourself, for the family who loves you, for your coworkers (who hopefully love you, too), and for strangers you’ve never met (like me) who might die if they catch the flu.