Flu shot refuseniks

Got your flu shot yet?

Many people have probably already gone through the annual ritual of being vaccinated against influenza, or plan to do so soon. (I got mine today.) Every year, though, there are folks who skip the whole routine.

Their reasons are varied. Many of them don’t think they need a flu shot. Sometimes they’re skeptical about whether the vaccine is all that safe or effective. Maybe they hate needles or don’t like the idea of vaccines, period. And sometimes they have good intentions but it isn’t high on their list of priorities.

Face it, there are a lot of myths about the influenza vaccine, who should receive it and why it’s helpful. The two I hear most often are: 1) “I never get the flu so I don’t need to be vaccinated”; and 2) “I don’t want a flu shot because the last time I had one, it gave me the flu.”

These would both be entirely logical reasons to abstain from the flu vaccine, except for one thing: They’re based on misinformation.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lays out the facts in an informative Q and A addressing many of the most common misconceptions, starting with the vaccine itself. No, flu shots don’t cause influenza, the CDC explains: “The influenza viruses contained in a flu shot are inactivated (killed), which means they cannot cause infection.”

Yes, people sometimes develop flu-like symptoms after being vaccinated, but the vast majority of the time it isn’t because of the vaccine, the CDC says. Sometimes it’s because someone was already exposed to influenza before being vaccinated, or they were exposed shortly after receiving a flu shot, before the vaccine had a chance to take full effect. Sometimes those flu-like symptoms aren’t influenza at all but are caused by a different respiratory virus not covered by the flu vaccine. And sometimes the three flu strains included in the annual vaccine formula simply aren’t a good match to whatever strains of the virus happen to be circulating.

Like all vaccines, flu shots aren’t 100 percent guaranteed to be effective. Some people, primarily the elderly and those whose immune systems have been compromised, can’t mount a strong immune response and therefore can end up getting sick with influenza, even when they’ve been vaccinated. And in some cases, people can react to a flu shot with fever, muscle pain and weakness – but, according to the CDC, this isn’t common.

There’s one exception, sort of, to the flu-shot-doesn’t-give-you-flu dictum: FluMist, the intranasal version of the vaccine which is approved for use among healthy individuals ages 2 to 49. This form of the vaccine does contain live flu viruses, which is why it’s recommended only for younger people without chronic conditions. The viruses are weakened, however, and pose little risk of causing infection anywhere other than in the relatively cool environment of the nose.

None of this matters, of course, if your reason for skipping a flu shot is because you just don’t think you need to be vaccinated. I’ll let the folks at WebMD’s Cold and Flu Center respond to this one:

First of all, we should all get the seasonal flu vaccine. Sure, if you’re in good health, you’ll probably recover from the seasonal flu just fine. But why suffer through the flu if you can avoid it? Second, protecting yourself isn’t the only reason to get vaccinated.

“Healthy adults forget that while they themselves might be at low risk for getting serious flu complications, other people in their family might not,” says Dr. Christine Hay, assistant professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center. If you have a small child at home, or an older parent, your failure to get yourself vaccinated could endanger them.

And that’s true on a larger, societal level. People with the weakest defenses, like children under 6 months, can’t get the flu vaccine. Their safety depends on the rest of us getting immunized.

It’s more than a little startling that many health care workers don’t seem to buy into the necessity of getting an annual flu shot to protect both themselves and the vulnerable patients with whom they come into contact. From what I’m told, the immunization rate among health care workers here in Willmar is very high, probably because leaders at Affiliated Community Medical Centers, Family Practice Medical Center and Rice Memorial Hospital have made a point of pushing it aggressively. Nationally, though, the rate is only about 44 percent, for many of the same reasons the rest of the public declines to get a flu shot – concerns about effectiveness, misplaced worry about getting sick from the vaccine, and plain old procrastination.

No one should be forced to get immunized for influenza if they genuinely don’t want to. It’s dismaying, however, that this decision often seems to be made on the basis of incomplete or inaccurate information. When the Consumer Reports National Research Center recently conducted a poll among a nationally representative sample of 1,500 adults, fewer than half of the respondents with a medical condition placing them at greater risk of flu-related complications actually considered themselves to be at risk. About one-third of those over age 65 didn’t see themselves at higher risk due to their age. And “even among those who consider themselves at risk for complications, only 56 percent said they’d definitely get vaccinated this year,” the pollsters reported.

If you’re going to be a refusenik, don’t you at least want it to be an informed choice?

West Central Tribune file photo

5 thoughts on “Flu shot refuseniks

  1. I don’t get a flu shot for a simple reason not stated in your article: I am allergic to eggs. The flu vaccine is made with raw eggs, and those allergic cannot get vaccinated.

    • My mom is the same way. She got the flu shot when I was little and it made her so sick she almost died. It took the flu shot to make her egg allergy known.

      I have had the flu shot in the distant past with no problems, but I hate needles for one, and I haven’t had the flu in close to ten years, so I must be doing something right. I made it through the whole H1N1 epidemic with out that vaccination too.

  2. Obviously an allergy to eggs is a medically valid reason to not get a flu shot. But if you weren’t allergic, would you still opt to not get a flu shot? This is really the population I was addressing: people who are eligible for a flu shot but decide not to get one for reasons based on inaccurate information or misperceptions of their own risk, or misperceptions of their potential for exposing others to the influenza virus. Before I started getting annual flu shots I hardly ever got sick with influenza but I think this was mostly due to luck, and not to any magical sort of immunity. My question would be: Why gamble without first trying to obtain accurate information about your odds?

  3. I’ve had Gillian Barre so when I’ve asked for the shot I’ve been refused! I need everyone else to get the shot. Thanks

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