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Sunday, August 19 Opinion

Op-ed: Influenza vaccination — a community effort

Public health officials and community physicians have been trying to convince the public for years about the importance of yearly influenza vaccination. And yet, distrust and skepticism among the population regarding this public health imperative remains high. We are all well aware of the severity of this year’s influenza season and its potentially fatal consequences. The relative inefficacy of this year’s vaccine (the estimate is that this year’s flu shot is only about 20 percent effective) is being used by many as one more excuse against vaccination (i.e. my friend/cousin/neighbor got the flu shot and came down with the flu anyway). Just the opposite is true. The surge in influenza this season (at a time when immunity in our community to influenza is relatively low) demonstrates just how effective influenza vaccination is during other seasons. In other words, when immunity to influenza in the community is low; influenza rates are high and more people get sick and die. And when immunity in the community is high; influenza rates are kept low and fewer people get sick and die. This is what is referred to in infection disease parlance as herd immunity.

Avoiding contracting influenza is not only an individual effort but a community effort. If we all get our vaccines, we all protect each other. The surest way to not contract influenza is to not be exposed to it. The problem with influenza vaccination is that protection is never 100 percent, even in the best of circumstances. So even if you are a responsible and well-informed individual and get your flu shot, if the guy packing your groceries at the grocery store, or your neighbor’s kid, or the waiter at that sushi bar you frequent comes down with the flu and coughs in your vicinity you may still get sick. However, if those individuals are immunized, and all the individuals with whom they have come into contact with are immunized and all the individuals that those individuals have come into contact with are immunized, then the likelihood that you will contract influenza while ordering your salmon and avocado roll are much, much lower.

So let’s take a moment to review reasons people give for not getting their flu shots.

1. The flu shot gave me the flu. Or even worse: my friend/cousin/neighbor said the flu shot gave him the flu. In our experience this is far and away the most common reason people give for not getting the flu shot. So let us be quite clear: it is a scientific fact that the flu shot does not give you the flu. Yes, it is possible that you might have a mild reaction for a day or two after the vaccine where you feel a little under the weather and a little achy (perhaps even with a low-grade fever). These types of reactions are a sign that your immune system is developing immunity against the influenza pathogen. Furthermore, these reactions are not that common, and when they do occur are relatively mild. However, the flu shot can not and does not cause a respiratory infection that includes cough, stuffy nose, sore-throat, etc. If you develop these symptoms after your flu shot it was a coincidence. Remember: we give people flu shots when we are in the middle of cough/cold season. Coincidentally some people are going to catch a cold in the days/weeks after receiving their flu shots. But that doesn’t mean the shot caused their cold. The phrase used in statistics to describe this concept is: correlation does not imply causation.

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2. I got the flu shot and I was sick all winter. The idea that immunizing against one respiratory pathogen (influenza) will you somehow make you more susceptible to all the other respiratory pathogens that run rampant during a typical winter season has no basis in fact. If you got your flu shot and had a bad winter with several upper respiratory infections it was not due to your flu shot.

3. I have nothing against the flu shot, I just didn’t get around to getting it. We’re all busy. We get it. But the flu shot is in almost every pharmacy in the country. Take a moment when you’re on your way to the grocery store, or that movie you’ve been dying to see, or that sushi place we mentioned above and get your shot! Influenza is a serious illness and should be treated as such. Between 10,000 and 50,000 people die from influenza every year. So far this season fifty-three children here in the United States have died as a result of this illness.

4. I just don’t believe in the flu shot. This one is the most difficult reasons to rebut because it is indicative of a person who believes in feeling over fact. Vaccination is scary to many people. The concept of injecting viral proteins into your body seems dangerous and unwise. All we can say is this: there are times in life where you have to let reason overrule feeling; when you have to let your intellect lead the way and put emotion aside. Because feelings are not always right and can lead you to make unwise decisions. You have to trust that the physicians and public health officials who have dedicated their lives to improving the health of our community are caring and conscientious people who are recommending influenza immunization because science has proven it is the right thing to do.

We need to protect each other because no one individual can single-handedly keep influenza out of their home. So please, do the right thing and go get your flu shot! (And not just this season, but the next one and the one after that, and the one after that, and the one after that, and so on.)

Dr. Tomas Vietorisz is director of rheumatology at Stamford Hospital and has been a primary care physician in the Stamford community for more than 25 years. Dr. Michael Parry is chair of infectious diseases for Stamford Health.

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