There are many theories and opinions floating around about influenza vaccination, however, the bottom line is that it works. The CDC estimates that vaccination is anywhere from 40-60% effective at reducing the risk of getting influenza in any given year.
In 2018-2019, vaccination prevented around 4.4 million influenza-associated medical visits, 58,000 admissions, and 3,500 deaths. This is significant, particularly when one considers that only about 50% of the population received the vaccine.
The top three reasons cited for not getting a flu shot were: “It doesn’t work”; “It always gives me the flu”; and “It causes side effects.” Let’s take a look at these one by one.
Does it work? As highlighted by the data above, the vaccine does work. An earlier study, in 2014, showed that vaccination of pediatric patients decreased a child’s risk of a flu-related admission into an intensive care unit by 74%. A 2018 study showed a similar effect in the adult population, reducing the risk of admission into an ICU by 82%.
In addition, flu vaccination has been shown to decrease the severity of the illness in those who go on to develop the flu. Therefore, if you are vaccinated and end up contracting the flu later in the season, you are less likely to be very sick, and will be sick for a shorter period of time. You get back to work quicker and have less time to infect those around you.
Will it give me the flu? The flu shot does not cause the flu. The material injected into your arm is either a killed version of the virus or a single gene from a flu virus. This material causes your body to generate antibodies so that your immune system will recognize the flu virus and attack it if you are later exposed to it.
This immune response can sometimes cause mild body aches and low-grade temperature elevations, but this is not the flu. The story your uncle tells you about getting sick after a flu shot is, most likely, due to an unrelated virus he picked up around the time of the shot. Remember, he likely got the shot at the height of cold season.
Does it have side effects? Like any medication, side effects can occur, though fortunately most are rare. The more common reactions are soreness and/or redness at the injection site. Rare allergic reactions can occur. Those with severe, documented egg allergies or reactions to the vaccine in the past should talk with their health care provider before being vaccinated.
The importance of influenza vaccination in the midst of the COVID pandemic cannot be overstated. Influenza/COVID co-infections have been reported. You can decrease the likelihood of this by getting the flu shot. Further, by getting the flu shot, you will significantly decrease your need to seek medical care for an influenza-like illness.
Consider the stats. If we can prevent over 4 million doctor visits, 58,000 hospital admissions, and 3,500 deaths by vaccinating half the population, just think of the health care resources we can free up to care for sick COVID and non-COVID patients if we double our efforts.
Getting the flu shot is the right thing to do for you, your family and friends, and our community. There is no downside. Flu shots will be available starting next week. Call your health care provider and ask about how you can get vaccinated.
(Dr. Tim Fox is the chief medical officer of LincolnHealth.)