By Seth Toback, MD, Vice President, Global Medical Affairs at bioMerieux
People have all sorts of reasons for not getting a flu shot each year—there aren’t any clinics nearby, some people may hate needles, others aren’t sure if it’s worth it, some people may be afraid it’s unsafe, many may not have time, and most of us just plain forget.
But unless you have a severe allergy to an ingredient in the vaccine, are under the age of six months, or have a health condition that makes vaccination inadvisable, you should get your flu shot. Why? Not just to protect yourself, but to protect those people who cannot be vaccinated against the flu—like newborn babies and those who otherwise cannot receive the vaccine.
Why does getting vaccinated protect other people, and not just you?
Getting vaccinated not only helps prevent you from getting sick, it also helps prevent you from transmitting germs to other people. If enough people get vaccinated, then the germs have trouble gaining a foothold at all, which helps slow or halt their spread, especially among vulnerable people like babies and small children. When that happens, it’s called “herd immunity,” and it is absolutely critical for protecting those who are otherwise vulnerable, and for eradicating diseases altogether. For example, vaccination is the reason that smallpox no longer kills millions of people each year, and it is the reason that the virus now only exists in specially secured laboratory samples. Similarly, polio no longer paralyzes children or confines them to iron lungs in the United States because enough people were vaccinated to halt the spread of the disease and eventually eradicate it in the Americas.
While we won’t eliminate the flu any time soon (there are too many strains and the viruses change too rapidly), we can help minimize the number of people who are hospitalized or die from flu complications each year, including our own family members. Family get-togethers right when flu season is kicking into high gear make the winter holidays the perfect storm for spreading illnesses. Many of us travel to visit family, making our way through crowded airports and then sitting for hours on packed airplanes. When we aren’t vaccinated, we can more easily pick up germs like the flu and then bring them to our families—definitely not the holiday gifts the kids were hoping for.
So, why do fewer than 50% of people in the United States get a flu shot?
Although the benefits of vaccination seem obvious, especially when it comes to protecting those we love, many people still do not receive a flu vaccine and end up getting sick or spreading germs to others, potentially with severe or dire consequences. By far, the most common reasons people do not get vaccinated are a lack of time, resources, and reminders. That’s why, over the last few years, the flu vaccine has been made available at places like grocery stores and pharmacies. However, physical access is not the only issue. Some of us may not be able to afford the cost of flu shots for our families, which is why it’s necessary to support efforts to make free or low-cost vaccines available for those of us who need them.
Another reason that people may not get vaccinated, and one that has recently become more common, is fear. Some mistakenly believe that the flu shot or other types of vaccines are unsafe or can cause influenza, both of which are untrue. The reasons for these beliefs are varied, but these beliefs ultimately put everyone at risk, especially babies and small children, who are more likely to have severe flu complications.
How are flu vaccines made and why do they work?
The annual flu vaccine is a product of a worldwide collaborative effort. Laboratories around the globe help monitor which flu viruses are prevalent, and they use their data to make predictions about the strains that are likely to cause the most illnesses during the next flu season. Because there are so many different strains of the flu, and we can’t protect against every single one, those predictions are vital to determine which strains will be included in the annual vaccine. Even when the vaccine is only partly effective, it still prevents many illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths.
There are different types of flu vaccines available that are suitable for people of different ages and health conditions, including traditional flu shots and the nasal spray vaccine. Because flu vaccines are supposed to help keep you safe and help protect everyone from the flu, especially the most vulnerable, all vaccines are carefully tested and monitored for safety every year.
All flu vaccines work by priming your immune system to fight off infection. It’s comparable to training for a big game, studying for a test, or rehearsing before a presentation. You wouldn’t expect an athlete to show up to game day without practicing—similarly, your body’s immune system performs better when it has had a chance to practice with a vaccine first.
What if I still don’t want to get vaccinated?
When we get sick, we become less productive—either we have to stay home from work, or we can’t work as efficiently. If you earn an hourly wage, that can have a direct effect on your ability to earn income to support your family. If you are salaried, your income may not be directly affected, but it still may mean that you have to use vacation time you were trying to save up, or that you miss an important meeting. And in either situation, you may have medical costs associated with treatment. More broadly, many people being sick, especially at the same time, is a drag on the economy.
The flu can have an impact on the readiness of essential groups of people, such as firefighters, airplane pilots, and physicians. And, it can upset your favorite football game or slow down your fun during a winter vacation. The flu vaccine protects more than just your own health and well-being—it protects public health. Fundamentally, our health and our families’ health are not just important to ourselves—they are important to our communities—locally, regionally, nationally, and globally.
This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition, diagnosis, or treatment.
Opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of bioMérieux, Inc.