Flu vaccine remains essential despite rumored ineffectiveness

We are currently in the thick of flu season, and this year’s is shaping up to be one of the worst in more than a decade, with San Diego being one of the most affected cities in the United States. So far this season, 174 flu-related deaths have been reported in San Diego County, and according to the county Health and Human Services Agency, 11 percent of all emergency room visits during the last week of January were for treatment of flu-like symptoms. Currently, there have been about 10,324 lab-confirmed flu cases this season, eight times more than there were last season at this time.

Yet, according to the Centers for Disease  Control and Prevention (CDC),  more than half of Americans do not receive the flu shot. A survey by NPR showed that to most people, there is simply not enough compelling evidence to suggest that the flu shot is effective. However, ‘less’ and ‘more’ effective are   relative terms. We need be careful about using words like this and instead should focus on absolute risk.

It is true that the flu virus changes from season to season, making it very hard for scientists to develop an immunization. The immunization can only include protection from a certain amount of strains so before the flu season, scientists try to make a prediction as to which strains of the flu are going to be the most prevalent. In order to do this, scientists get together in the summer and analyze the influenza virus in Australia, whose flu season happens earlier than the U.S. Some years their hypothesis is correct, and others it’s not. This season, scientists created a flu vaccination that is most effective against strains H1N1 and H3N2. Their prediction was not far off, as H3N2 is causing the most devastation this season.

But if the scientists aren’t always right, then why even bother getting the vaccination? While it may seem reasonable not to get the vaccination if it does not provide a guarantee of immunity, the flu shot is not about completely preventing the flu, but reducing the risk of catching it. A study by the CDC shows that flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40 and 60 percent among the overall population during seasons when the flu vaccine is well-matched to the prevalent flu viruses. Even when it is not, the flu shot still provides some protection and can reduce symptoms’ severity.

Even if it does not completely prevent you from getting the flu, there is no downside to the vaccine. And that’s the point we need to emphasize. Contrary to popular belief, the flu shot does not cause the flu. Flu vaccines given with a needle are made with flu viruses that have been inactivated and are therefore not infectious. Sadly, 40 percent of Americans still believe that the flu vaccine can directly cause influenza and will avoid getting a flu shot as a result.

Still, even with these facts in mind, the benefits to getting the flu vaccine don’t convince everyone. People will agree that measles and mumps are diseases to avoid at all costs, and as such, many more people get the measles and mumps vaccines. However, most people are not concerned with the flu. And they would be right to think this—healthy adults very rarely die from influenza.

The truth is, influenza is not particularly threatening to healthy people, yet to the very young, the elderly, and those with weak immune systems, the consequences of the flu can be life-threatening. This season, seniors age 65 and older are being hospitalized at incredible rates and 65 children have died from the flu so far. Severely immunocompromised people and babies less than six months old are unable to get a flu shot because they are at a greater risk of suffering the fatal consequences that adults don’t have to worry about. With regard to the elderly, their immune systems tend to be weaker, making the vaccination less effective for them.

Without the ability to get the flu shot, these groups of people rely on the community to be healthy so that the flu virus is not spread to them. This idea of ‘herd immunity’ is what keeps the virus from spreading to those with weak immune systems. If the majority of people are immunized then it matters less that the elderly and the very young don’t have protection. However, the CDC says that in order to reach this point, 80-90 percent of people would need to be vaccinated. Sadly, the U.S. has a long way to go as only around 48 percent of americans are getting vaccinated.

While you yourself may not be heavily affected by the flu, there are those for whom the consequences can be fatal. It’s crucial that we try to protect those who cannot protect themselves. The flu shot is not necessarily about you, but about the good of everyone.