Whether it is due to the anti-vaccine trend, an aversion to needles, or assumed invincibility, over half of Americans are not receiving an annual flu shot. The UPenn Health Service tweeted, “Fact: Flu is more infectious than Ebola.”
It’s time to stop making excuses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated over 3,000 flu-related deaths in 2013, many of which could have been avoided had more people been vaccinated. That number is conservative and does not account for pneumonia deaths (often grouped with influenza deaths) which account for over 53,000 additional fatalities.
The flu is unique in that it an infected individual can spread the virus anytime from one day before symptoms develop to five to seven days after becoming ill. This means that before you even know you are sick, you could have passed the virus on to dozens of people. With such an easily transmittable virus, it makes sense that people would be wary in crowded areas such as shopping malls and churches. Why, then, is there not a great concern regarding the health of college students during flu season?
Janet Yang at University of Buffalo said that only about 8 percent of college students get a seasonal flu vaccine each year despite easy access to free or reduced-cost vaccinations. Yang points out that much of this is due to social influence and “unwarranted optimism” about their own health by which they overestimate how safe they are. The flu has become old news to many, therefore downplaying its severity. But if the flu is in fact more infectious than Ebola, we should be more concerned and proactive in taking advantage of preventative measures.
Many people have what seem like valid concerns regarding the flu vaccine. Here are three common reasons why people tend to avoid the flu vaccination.
It will give me the virus or harmful side effects.
Dr. Jennifer Caudle recalls coming down with an “epic flu-like illness” after receiving the flu vaccine when she was a medical student. She understands the concerns of injecting a live virus into your bloodstream, but denies that her illness and the illness of many others was linked to the vaccination. Most people who become ill after receiving a flu vaccination are experiencing an unrelated illness. In some cases, these people may actually have the flu because the body takes several weeks to become protected from influenza after vaccination. Caudle said “regardless of why I ended up getting sick, it was not from the flu vaccine itself. It just doesn’t work that way.”
The anti-vaccine community received yet another boost this year when a few lesser-known websites published articles on high mercury content found in flu vaccinations. The CDC admits that thimerosal, an ethyl mercury-based preservative, is present in multi-dose flu vaccine vials to prevent contamination from bacteria or fungi. Most preloaded syringes or nasal sprays do not contain thimerosal. The FDA stated that this preservative has been used for decades and of the many studies conducted, none of them shows a correlation between thimerosal and autism or any other serious side effect.
It doesn’t really work any more.
This issue of virus immunity and adaptability has been a challenge for researchers and healthcare providers for decades. Though there are multiple strains of influenza that are hard to predict, each year professionals work hard to pinpoint which strains are circulating, how they are spreading and how well the current vaccines protect against new viruses. Though the flu vaccine may not be 100 percent effective over all of these viruses, it has saved over 40,000 lives to date. On a college campus, the chances of localized epidemic are high. Imagine the flu as lice: wouldn’t you do everything you could to protect yourself and stop the spread? Similarly, student health centers across the country offer the flu vaccine as a preventative measure to avoid an outbreak.
I don’t need it, I never get sick… and if I do, it’s not that bad.
It is true that you have a good chance of staying healthy and almost symptom-free throughout flu season whether you get a vaccine or not. However, many people will not be as lucky. Most flu-related deaths occur in infants, the elderly or those with weakened immune systems due to a medical condition. Some of these conditions include asthma, blood disorders, diabetes, Grave’s disease and other autoimmune disorders. It is likely that you come in contact with many students each day that have one of these disorders. Though you may feel protected, one of these people could get the flu from you simply because you chose to skip out on a needle prick.
College student Natalie Flemming has experienced the devastating effects of the flu virus first-hand. On February 4, 2014, Natalie and her mother returned home after touring Elon University in North Carolina to find that her father, Mark Flemming, had passed away at age 52. Cause of death was determined to be myocarditis, a heart condition that developed as a result of a mutated flu virus. It is tragedies like these that should make us more aware of the severity of the flu vaccine and push us to protect ourselves and others.
Assistant secretary for health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services stated that “flu season is predictably unpredictable.” You may be one of many lucky individuals that has no encounter with the flu this year, but many people will be hospitalized or lose their life as a result of this deadly virus. The stakes are too high to gamble with the flu: even if you get through flu season safely, you may the the reason another person gets deathly ill. It’s not worth the risk.
Featured image courtesy of Popsugar.