Not quite as celebrated as the holiday season, flu season is real, and it’s back for its annual visit. Thankfully, these days, we have a flu vaccine to save us all from suffering through influenza. But every year, people are hesitant to get the inoculation. In 2016, only 48.6 percent of the population got a flu shot, which means that more than half of all Americans went unprotected against this common, incredibly unpleasant virus.
Many people view the flu shot with indifference or fear. If you think, I never get the flu, so I don’t need the shot, or believe that the shot itself will actually make you sick, you’re not alone. But at the same time, it seems strange that we’d be so resistant to a vaccine that can stop us from getting sick—I mean, if someone invented a shot that eliminated mildly annoying headaches, I’d be first in line. So why would we rather risk contracting a miserable and dangerous illness than take a shot that many doctors practically give away?
Well, the flu shot DOES have a questionable past.
Though "Get Your Flu Shot Today" posters have only been bombarding us for about the last ten years, flu shots have actually been around since 1942. The evolving history of influenza viruses and influenza vaccines. Hannoun C. Expert review of vaccines, 2013, Sep.;12(9):1744-8395. Jonas Salk first cut his teeth inventing the flu vaccine, before he became inoculation-famous with his polio vaccine in 1952. But the flu shot, which in its early incarnation was used primarily on WWII soldiers, didn’t work that often.
Of course, it doesn’t always work today, but it was really problematic then: Every year, the vaccine protects against the strains of influenza virus that are included in the vaccine, but the flu is a tricky little scamp. The strains that make us sick every year don’t stay the same. So the WHO has to make an educated guess about which strains are most likely to be prominent that year. Though the WHO collects year-round flu surveillance from over 100 sites around the world, they still have to make the vaccine in advance of the actual flu season.
Theirs is an incredibly thorough process, and often they use the data available to pick the right strains, stopping scores of people from dealing with this seasonal illness. But the WHO ain’t Nostradamus, and they can’t always predict ahead of time which strains will strike. When they guess wrong, the flu shot is much less effective.
And that swine flu scandal definitely didn’t help.
In 1976, a scary-looking swine flu popped up, and the Center for Disease Control feared we’d be struck by another flu pandemic, like the 1918 one that killed some 50 million people. So the U.S. government rushed out a mass inoculation campaign. But the swine flu epidemic never happened, and instead, 450 people contracted Guillain-Barre syndrome after receiving the shot. Combine the fear about swine flu spread by the government, the non arrival of the flu pandemic, and a spike in a rare neurological disorder, and it’s no wonder people were hesitant to get a flu vaccine.
Of course, the number of people who contracted Guillain-Barre was a tiny percentage of overall flu shot recipients, and nowadays, the CDC insists that there’s no tie between the vaccine and the disorder. Still, it didn’t instill a lot of confidence.
... nor did that other swine flu scandal.
Another controversy hit as recently as 2009: To fight the vicious swine flu (H1N1) outbreak in Europe, a specific H1N1 vaccine was created. Unfortunately, it came with a side effect: narcolepsy. Around 1,300 people developed narcolepsy, an incurable sleeping disorder, after getting the H1N1 shot. This particular shot was never used in the U.S., and there have been no reported links between the American H1N1 shots and narcolepsy. Still, it made people once again wary of the vaccine.
But there’s plenty of good flu news.
To be clear, I’m not bringing up the scandals of flu shots past to scare you. The instances of Guillain-Barre and narcolepsy occured in a very low percentage of people who received the flu shot, but learning about the vaccine’s past can help us understand why we as a culture tend to think of the flu shot as either dangerous or "meh."
Flu shots have improved year after year, and now they’re safe for almost everybody. In years past, the inoculation was grown in chicken eggs, so people with severe egg allergies could potentially have reactions. Now they’ve made a flu shot that doesn’t use eggs at all, so you can get it despite having pretty much any allergy. Even pregnant women can get a flu shot; in fact, getting the flu while pregnant is dangerous, so the vaccine stops the likelihood of the illness and protects the baby. A pregnant mom actually passes the flu immunity to her child, too, which lessens the chance that parents have to experience the nightmare of a one-month-old catching influenza.
Even though the shot is better now, it’s easy for most of us to brush off the risk of contracting the flu. For a healthy adult, it can seem like a harmless disease that just makes life suck for a couple of days, but it’s actually a serious business. It’s hard to say how many people die from the flu each year, since the cause of death is often from things brought on by the flu, but the CDC estimates it kills anywhere from 3,300-49,000 people every year.
Yeah, the flu is more harmful for children, the elderly, or people with compromised immune systems. Still, that doesn’t mean healthy people should avoid the shot. When healthy people get the vaccine, it helps increase herd immunity; some people are too sick (or too young) to get the flu shot, but if everyone around them gets the shot and doesn’t get the flu, then those unvaccinated people will stay healthy. Basically, you’re not just getting the shot for yourself, you’re getting the shot to protect everybody else.
So, if the shot is safe, why do we all resist getting it every year?
I’m a total supporter of vaccines, yet every year when it’s time to get the shot, I act like you’ve asked me to help you move. During a snowstorm. On a holiday weekend. Basically, I’m annoyed and reluctant, the shot’s a hassle, and it never seems that necessary.
My skepticism might come from the flu shot’s not-so-perfect track record. I’m not talking about Guillain-Barre or narcolepsy incidents. I’m referring back to that one basic problem with the flu shot: It doesn’t always work.
It’s true that the flu shot isn’t nearly as effective as we want it to be.
Even the best flu shot only protects 60 percent of vaccinated people, but when it’s really off, the efficacy sits around 10 percent. So it’s totally possible that you’ll haul yourself into the doctor’s office or pharmacy, pay up to $40, get a needle jabbed in your arm, and still get the flu!
How many times have you seen somebody get the measles shot, then complain about getting laid up with a bad case of measles three months later? Probably zero. Sure, that shot’s primarily given to babies, so it’s not like we’d hear them complain about it directly, but still. When you get two doses of the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine, the efficacy rate sits at 97 percent. That’s a lot more impressive than the flu shot’s lame-o 60 percent rate.
The Journal of the American Medical Association performed a study in 2000 about the efficacy and cost benefits of the flu shot. They found that the shot is incredibly effective for people over 65. But for everybody else? The study concluded that a well-matched flu shot reduced lost work days and visits to the doctor, but in most years, the vaccine hasn’t been well matched, which means the vaccine didn’t often provide any economic advantage for working adults. Basically, it’s clear the flu shot is good for the elderly, but for healthy, young people, it’s kind of a draw.
As recently as 2016, a version of the flu shot was retracted. In the past few years, you could get the regular shot or use a nasal spray. The spray was especially good for kids, since children and needles aren’t usually a happy combo. But for 2016-2017, the CDC removed the nasal spray entirely. Why? Turns out from 2013-2016, it hardly worked at all.
Let’s bust some flu vaccine myths.
1. The flu shot makes you sick.
Another thing that keeps people from getting vaccinated every year are prevailing myths around the shot. The biggest one: that the flu shot makes you sick. We’ve all heard this, and it’s probably kept some of us from heading to the doctor to get our annual vaccine.
Guess what? It’s not true. Lots of people think the vaccine is made from live flu viruses. Nope! The shot is made from inactivated (read: dead) forms of the virus, or made with no virus at all, according to the CDC. In a blind study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the only side effects from the vaccine were soreness or swelling in the spot where you got the shot. This happens when your immune system responds to the vaccine, and it’s a good thing. The soreness is usually mild and goes away after a few days. So you might get a sore arm, but you definitely won’t get the flu from a flu vaccine.
"But I got the flu right after I got the flu shot!" some might say. In that case, that person already had the flu. It’s not uncommon to carry the virus without symptoms at the time you’re vaccinated. Then, when the fever and achiness pop up, it’s easy to blame it on the shot. But it’s just crappy timing.
2. The flu shot weakens your immunity.
In this line of thinking, it’s better to just get the flu and deal with it. Again, not true. Since flu strains change every year, suffering through the flu only protects you against future attacks of that one strain. Plus, your body’s immunity weakens over time, so when the new strain comes along next season, you’ll be just as susceptible as everyone else. And the flu shot doesn’t weaken your immunity. It makes you immune to a strain of the flu. Just because your immune system didn’t fight off the virus itself doesn’t mean the immunity is any less effective.
3. The flu is no problem because you can just pop some antibiotics.
No can do, friend! Influenza is a virus; antibiotics only kill bacterial infections. You can take Z-packs all day and all night—it won’t do jack to make your flu go away. Sometimes the virus weakens your system, and you end up with the flu and a bacterial infection. In that case, antibiotics would be prescribed, but they still won’t kill your flu. That’s what makes influenza so miserable—there’s nothing you can do. You just have to sip on Theraflu and wait it out.
So, yeah, even though the flu shot is far from perfect, you should still get one. I know, it’s a pain. I avoided them for years, mostly due to laziness and ignorance. But this year, I got the shot early and I’m glad. If you can avoid a week of fevers, aches, and a nose full of fluid—why not? Sure, there’s a chance you’ll still get the flu, but there’s also a chance you’ll avoid an illness that could cost you lots of sick days.
And by getting the shot, you’re helping your whole community.
But the most important reason to get vaccinated is for the people who can’t get the shot. Herd immunity is important. For people with compromised immune systems, the flu can be deadly. So when you get the shot, you’re helping someone else stay healthy. If you’re not sure where to find the vaccine, ask your doctor. If you’re insured, the shot should be free. If you’re not insured, you still have options. Where I live, in Los Angeles, local libraries are giving out flu shots for free. In other locations, check out local health centers or college campuses. They’ll often have drives for free or low-priced shots. If all else fails, you can get low-cost vaccines at pharmacies around the country.
I know the flu shot sucks. With its problematic past and inconsistent present, I totally get that you’re not skipping down to the doctor to happily await your vaccine. But at the end of the day, it still stops thousands of people from getting sick with no real risk of side effects. So you’ve got to roll up your sleeves and take the shot. You’ll likely have a year free of the flu, and will definitely help keep others healthy. That’s worth a sore arm once a year.Amber Petty is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. If you like easy crafts and Simpsons gifs, check out her blog Half-Assed Crafts.