Generation X meets the flu

How do you get a generation of healthy young adults to start paying attention to infectious diseases like influenza?

Perhaps they’re paying a little more attention than we realize. Researchers at the University of Michigan recently released a report on how American 30-somethings responded to the H1N1 flu pandemic of 2009-10 and concluded they “did reasonably well in their first encounter with a major epidemic.”

The report is based on survey data collected during the H1N1 outbreak from about 3,000 individuals aged 36-39. More than half of the respondents – 65 percent, to be exact – said they were at least moderately concerned, and nearly 60 percent said they were tracking the news about the novel flu virus either very closely or moderately closely.

Their interest didn’t necessarily translate into action. Only about one in five said they actually received the H1N1 flu vaccination. But the majority of the survey participants described themselves as being fairly well informed about the flu epidemic, with the highest level of interest reported by parents of young children.

Those surveyed also seemed pretty good at discerning reliable sources of information. They put physicians, the National Institutes of Health, their local pharmacist and county health nurses at the top of the credibility list. At the bottom of the heap? YouTube videos, drug company commercials and Wikipedia.

The survey findings are frankly more positive than I would have expected. In my younger adult days, I wasn’t particularly concerned about influenza and didn’t believe flu shots were necessary for people in my age group (although, to be fair, annual immunizations against influenza weren’t recommended back then for the under-65 crowd). I feel differently these days, perhaps because I’m older and because there’s more – and better – information available.

When it comes to infectious disease, why would the attitudes of young adults matter? There seems to be an increasing urgency among public health experts to address this demographic, and not only where influenza is involved.

Most older adults have some memory of disease outbreaks such as measles or whooping cough, writes Dr. David Detert in a recent entry at the Discover ACMC blog. “What we are faced with today is that a majority of our population hasn’t experienced those types of dire situations or has forgotten what it was like years ago before immunizations.”

As a result, many younger adults might underestimate the risk or severity of infectious diseases and may choose not to vaccinate because they perceive the benefit is so slight, he writes. And when that happens, herd immunity can diminish and set the stage for a resurgence of disease in a population that’s not well protected.

“You might hear people say, ‘It’s OK, we just don’t have outbreaks like that anymore,’” Dr. Detert writes. “What you have to remember is that our frame of reference now is during a time where we have had the benefit of being an immunized population; compare that to years ago, before vaccines were developed, and it’s a different story.”

It’s not always an easy message to sell. Young adults these days are bombarded with multiple messages, often conflicting and sometimes from sources that are biased or unreliable.

The University of Michigan study suggests, however, that younger adults do take an interest in health and disease and would likely be receptive to good information.

The H1N1 flu epidemic, which turned out to be relatively mild in the United States, wasn’t the first widespread disease outbreak and won’t be the last, points out Jon D. Miller, author of the Generation X Report, in an accompanying news release. “In the decades ahead, the young adults in Generation X will encounter numerous other crises – some biomedical, some environmental, and others yet to be imagined. They will have to acquire, organize and make sense of emerging scientific and technical information, and the experience of coping with the swine flu epidemic suggests how they will meet that challenge.”

Photo: Train commuters in Mexico City wear masks during the H1N1 influenza outbreak of 2009-10. Source: Wikimedia Commons

One thought on “Generation X meets the flu

  1. One of the things that isn’t well understood among the general public, I think, is herd immunity and why it’s important for young people to be vaccinated, even if they’re not likely to be severely harmed by a virus.

    With things like whooping cough, for example, it’s not about you. A 25-year-old will probably have an unpleasant bout with whooping cough and be just fine. Not so the 2-month-old baby (too young for immunizing) that 25-year-old comes into contact with when he or she is contagious. Not so his or her 80-year-old grandfather or his immuno-compromised mother, on chemotherapy for breast cancer. And then there are the people in whom, for whatever reason, the immunization just doesn’t take.

    We need herd immunity to protect these people, and that means that people who can get vaccinated need to get vaccinated. Getting vaccinated is not about you.

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