Myths Surrounding The Flu Vaccine Keep Many Americans From Getting Their Annual Shot

Flu shots
A new NPR survey reaffirms the strange phobia that many Americans have about the flu vaccine. Mike Mozart, CC BY 2.0

Many Americans are still afraid of getting their flu shots, and oftentimes for unfounded reasons.

That’s the sullen forecast gleaned from a survey of over 3,000 adults commissioned and released by NPR in conjunction with Truven Health Analytics this past Friday. The poll, conducted in the early days of flu season, late October, found that only 62 percent had either received or intended to receive their annual flu vaccine this year. Those reluctant offered a variety of explanations, from fears the vaccine would harm them to the belief they simply didn’t need one.

More specifically, of the remaining 38 percent not planning to get the shot, 48 percent said they were unneeded; 16 percent were worried about the risks or side effects it might bring along; 14 percent thought the shot could accidently give them the flu; and 8 percent simply deemed it ineffective. Unfortunately, these reasons, while understandable, betray a basic knowledge of the influenza virus, our immune system, and how the flu shot actually works.

"People tend to minimize [the flu]," CDC epidemiologist Shannon Stockley told NPR. "They think, 'Oh, it's like a cold.' But it's actually much more serious than that, and they don't realize how important the vaccine is to protect against that disease."

For the 2013 to 2014 flu season alone, vaccination prevented more than 7.2 million cases of flu and 90,000 hospitalizations, according to the Centers For Disease Control (CDC). These numbers contrast with the approximate 200,000 hospitalizations and 25,000 deaths related to influenza that occur annually. Even these protective benefits are a large step down from what they could be, however, since it’s estimated by the CDC that less than half of Americans obtain their annual shot or spray, a vaccination rate that’s largely stayed stagnant for quite some time. In 2010, the CDC modified its guidelines to recommend that every American over the age of 6 months get vaccinated, barring allergy.

While the flu vaccine can wane in the degree of protection it offers the user from year to year, there’s no need to fear that it can inadvertently cause a person to contract flu, since the virus found in it is already dead or weakened. In other words, any flu you do catch after getting a shot is a case of flu you would have caught from elsewhere. Similarly, while there are occasional side effects from the vaccine, such as pain at the site of injection, they’re short-lasting and in comparison to the flu itself, are more than a fair tradeoff. There’s even evidence that flu vaccination can provide a myriad of fringe benefits, such as a reduced risk of stroke.

Thankfully, one of the more positive takeaways from the NPR survey is that those at greatest risk of serious complications from the flu, namely the elderly over 65, were also the most likely to report wanting to become vaccinated. Additionally, few participants reported financial cost being an impediment to obtaining the vaccine.

Still, the best possible way to fight back against the flu this season is to encourage everyone to get those jabs as soon as they can, in particular because it boosts our collective herd immunity.

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