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October 16, 2018

Many people believe they're healthy enough to skip a flu shot (and that can be deadly)

Daily Briefing

    Before nearly dying of influenza in early 2017, Latasha Haynes, then 34, had never received a flu shot, Robyn Correll reports for the Washington Post.

    Traveling this fall? How to avoid the flu when you fly.

    At first, Haynes' symptoms were limited to a light cough and fatigue, but she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure after the flu damaged her heart muscles. She survived the illness—but needed two blood transfusions and months of recovery, Haynes survived.

    Few people get vaccinated against the flu

    According Flor Munoz, a pediatric infectious disease expert at Texas Children's Hospital, "People who are healthy can get severe consequences from influenza." He cited a 2018 study that showed half of children who died from flu had no underlying health issues.

    Nonetheless, fewer than half of the U.S. populations gets vaccinated, according to CDC—despite recommendations that they should.

    Only one-third of adults under 50 and less than 60% of children received a flu shot during the 2016-2017 season. That season, 30.9 million people got the flu and 14.5 million saw a doctor for the virus. Of the 600,000 who were hospitalized, 50,000 were adults under 50—including Haynes, who got sick in January 2017.

    The following flu season, 2017-2018, was one of the deadliest in decades. About 80,000 people died from the flu, compared with 12,000 to 56,000 in recent years, according to CDC.

    Why don't people get vaccinated?

    A lot of adults, like Haynes, forgo the flu vaccine because they don't think they need it, Correll reports. A Rand survey found 25% of adults said they didn't get the flu vaccine because they assumed they'd be fine without it.

    "It just wasn't at the top of the list," Haynes said. "[I thought,] 'I'm healthy. I'm young. Why would I need a flu shot? If I got the flu, I'd be able to fight it. It's not that big of a deal.'"

    Some chose not to get vaccinated because they think that the vaccine could be a greater danger than the flu. Kari O'Driscoll said she decided not to get the flu vaccine because she and her two kids are "healthy" and would be fine if they caught the flu—but the risks of the vaccine are less certain.

    "I weighed that [risk from flu] against the thought of injecting them with something every single year that may or may not afford them immunity ... and it didn't seem worth it," O'Driscoll said.

    Others site the flu vaccines effectiveness rate. The flu vaccine had a 40% effectiveness rate for the last two flu seasons, a figure that some feel is too low, Correll reports.

    The flu shot is worth it, research shows.

    Research shows that flu vaccines are safe and beneficial—even for "healthy people," Correll reports.

    According to Flor Munoz, a pediatric infectious disease expert at Texas Children's Hospital, people should not be worried that they are putting their health at risk by getting the flu vaccine. The vaccines are tested and produced to "very high standards," Munoz said.   

    Munoz also noted that gauging the success of the flu shot is more complicated than the press lets on.

    The vaccine is more effective against certain strains and protects some age groups better than others. For instance, "[t]he ability to develop good immunity and be protected from [the vaccine] is better in healthy people because everything is working properly," Munoz said. But, in the United States, usually people who are older, younger, or sick get vaccinated, which lowers the effectiveness rate, Correll reports.

    According to Munoz, the extent to which the vaccine protects against hospitalization and mortality is a better representation of its effectiveness.

    During the 2016-2017 season, the vaccine prevented 2.6 million medical visits, and 84,700 hospitalizations, according to CDC. The vaccine can also reduce an infected child's risk of dying from the flu by 65% and reduce the chance of serious complications like pneumonia, organ failure, or brain swelling. 

    So while the vaccine might not protect everyone from all strains of the virus, it can be viewed as "that one extra layer of protection," Haynes said. This year, she'll get her flu shot, Correll reports.

    "If I do get sick, I know that I've done my part to put something in place to help me fight," Haynes said (Correll, Washington Post, 10/6).

    How to avoid the flu when you fly

    Download this infographic to learn about both the obvious and less obvious locations where germs on planes are rampant.

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