I’m a PhD student who studies (and fiercely campaigns for) vaccines, and thus I was first up to get my flu shot once they became available in late August. And here we are, on January 20th, and I am four days into the flu. Yes, it is ironic. But perhaps more ironically, I am glad that I got the flu this year after being vaccinated.
Most years I get the flu vaccine and nothing happens (proof that the vaccine works, or maybe that I was never exposed in the first place). Having the flu now, I know that this year, my flu vaccine is directly working towards mitigating my current illness, reducing the risk of severe complications, and helping ensuring that the illness I do have is milder than it would have been had I not been vaccinated.
The flu vaccine is not perfect – nor does it guarantee 100% immunity. Nevertheless, I get vaccinated every year and will continue to do so. Here are a few reasons why:
1. Even with imperfect coverage, the flu vaccine is better than no protection! Most importantly, the vaccine contributes to herd immunity.
If enough people get vaccinated, then transmission can be interrupted and slowed, protecting everyone (even those who cannot get vaccinated for medical reasons). This animation is a good reminder of why getting a vaccine is so important to protect the community as a whole, not just yourself. Herd immunity only works if vaccination coverage is high enough to slow or stop transmission.
The flu vaccine each year is created before flu season. This means the vaccine is a product of an educated guess by scientists about what strains will be the most prevalent. Some years the guesses are better than others, but you’ll notice from the chart below from CDC that for all years, the vaccine coverage is markedly better than zero. Even if the flu vaccine does not have perfect effectiveness, being vaccinated does REDUCE the severity of flu, the risk of hospitalization and ICU admission, and the risk of severe complications.
2. The flu can be a nasty illness.
There have been stories all over the news recently about freak deaths of healthy children and teens who were unvaccinated against the flu: including heart wrenching tales of a young girl in Dallas, and a 16 year-old girl from Ohio. Based on estimates from the CDC, so far this season there have been at least 13 million flu illnesses, 120,000 hospitalizations and 6,600 deaths from flu. The CDC’s map of influenza-like-illness (ILI), below, shows that the flu is widespread across almost the entire US from October – now, and the Southern part of the country has especially high activity.
The flu is unique in that it does not discriminate, and can infect anyone regardless of age, sex, race, or socioeconomic status. However, those most at risk of hospitalization and severe side effects tend to be the elderly and the very young. The CDC reports that this year, the highest rates of hospitalization are occurring among those aged ≥65, followed by children aged 0-4 and adults aged 50-64 years.
3. The side effects of the flu vaccine are not comparable to getting the flu!
It is a common misconception that one can get the flu from the flu vaccine. This is not true. Flu shots are currently made in two ways: either with flu viruses that have been ‘inactivated’ (killed) or using only a single gene from a flu virus (not the full virus) to produce an immune response without causing infection. Neither of these techniques presents the body with a viable, infectious pathogen, making it impossible to get the flu from the flu shot. (For more information on the types of vaccines, check out the post: “The Different Types of Vaccines”). The vaccine can cause mild side effects which may mimic some flu symptoms, including headache, nausea, and body aches. However, these are short-lived and are evidence that your body is mounting an immune response to protect you from the flu.
One of my heroes, Peter Hotez, who is a vaccine scientist and advocate, makes the case for flu vaccines in a recent piece for the New York Times:
“Even though influenza ranks among the leading killers of Americans, many choose not to vaccinate, believing that the vaccine is dangerous or that it can even cause flu… The risk of a severe reaction from the flu vaccine, such as Guillain-Barré syndrome (an autoimmune condition of the peripheral nervous system that can cause tingling, limb weakness or paralysis) is tiny, roughly equal to the likelihood of being hit by a lightning strike. Influenza itself can bring on Guillain-Barré syndrome; the vaccine is more likely than not protecting you from this condition.”
Specifically, this graphical explanation from the 2017-2018 flu season presents the risks – side by side – of flu infection vs. flu vaccination, and there is truly no comparison:
I’ll preach the flu vaccine to anyone who is listening – because I fiercely believe in science, that deaths from preventable diseases are inexcusable, and that one shouldn’t get vaccinated just to protect themselves, but to reduce the likelihood of spread to their community and their loved ones. This means that as a society, we all have to buy into a sense of collective well-being and sacrifice a little personal joy (because getting an injection does hurt, and costs money for those uninsured), for the common good.
In conclusion, if you’re an able-bodied adult, you may believe that even if you get the flu, you’ll be alright. A concerning study recently found that millennials (my proud demographic) are the group least likely to get their flu vaccine, with 55% of those in their 20s and 30s reporting they did not get a flu vaccine this year.
Best case scenario, the flu will take you out of work and normal activities for a week or longer, and no one wants to burn their paid vacation time being sick at home. So please, vaccinate for your future vacation, vaccinate for your elderly grandparents, vaccinate for your newborn cousin, and for your unknown neighbors who may face a compromised immune system and need your help to protect them. This is a rare chance for everyone to tangibly help their community while also protecting their own health.