“It’s just the flu, it won’t kill me.” Many public health officials and doctors hear this when they promote the flu vaccination to the people they serve. For many healthy individuals, this may be true, but the flu contributes to hundreds of thousands of deaths across the globe, and thousands in the United States, every single year. This type of attitude has caused many to ignore the potentially life-saving vaccine, leaving the most vulnerable in communities at risk for contracting the flu.
Since the first influenza vaccine achieved approval in the 1940s, the vaccination has been controversial. In recent years, doctors have pushed for more acceptance of the vaccine and the CDC has placed it on the recommended vaccine schedule. The controversy has increased significantly, making people afraid to get the flu shot or against it entirely.
Yet the flu vaccine prevents millions of deaths from the flu and its complications every single year. As the winter 2019 flu season approaches, a closer look at the flu, its vaccine, and some of the myths surrounding it will help those in the public health sector better serve their communities. Armed with the right information, public health professionals can help protect those they serve from this potentially deadly virus.
The 2019 Flu Shot Contains Four Strains of the Virus
Each year, world health officials must decide what strains to include in the flu vaccine. Sometimes they include three, and other times they include four, based on the current risk. In 2019-2020, the CDC is using a quadrivalent flu shot, which means it contains four strains of the flu. The CDC also released recommendations that the shot be taken by everyone ages six months and older in the fall, with health officials offering it by the end of October, to provide the best possible protection in the coming months.
The 2019 Flu Could Be Particularly Deadly
In 2017, Australia, which has its flu season earlier than the United States, had a particularly intense and deadly season. Local health experts reported that it was the worst flu outbreak in the past two decades. When the flu made its way to the United States for the 2017-2018 flu season, an estimated 79,000 died.
Because Australia experiences its flu season before the US, it is a good indicator of what may happen during the American flu season. This year, Australia’s flu outbreaks started in April, which was two months earlier than usual. It continued well into October, making the flu season quite long. The official number of deaths was 662, which was high, though lower than the 2017 number. In addition, the country reported more positive flu tests than usual, indicating a particularly strong strain of the flu.
Based on the Australian numbers, public health officials are warning Americans about a higher risk of a deadly flu outbreak in 2019. The flu season may last longer than normal with more people contracting the flu than usual, if America follows Australian trends as it normally does. Since September 29, 2019, the United States has already had 1,978 positive cases of flu reported to health officials, and that number continues to rise as the year progresses. In light of this, the CDC is warning Americans to take flu season seriously, and to protect themselves with the flu vaccine.
Myths About the Flu Shot Persist
Unfortunately, even though the United States faces a difficult flu season in the coming months, myths about the flu shot continue to deter people from getting this important vaccination. In the 2018-2019 flu season, only about 45 percent of the adult community had a flu shot, and many said no because of these myths. Public health officials must learn to educate people about the truth behind these myths in order to increase the number of people who get the vaccine and better protect the local community.
Myth 1 – The Flu Shot Can Give Someone the Flu
Many people report that they refuse the flu shot because they got one in the past, and then got sick afterwards. While this may have happened as a coincidence, the flu vaccine contains an inactive virus, and an inactive virus cannot transmit disease. Thus, it is impossible to get the flu from the flu shot. So why do some people report feeling sick after their flu shot? There are a few reasons for this.
First, some people may experience an immune response to the inactive vaccine, which causes the person to feel a little unwell. This may include a headache, low fever, or muscle aches. This is not the same as the flu, and it will pass quickly while the body builds an immunity to the actual flu.
Second, the flu has an incubation period, and the flu shot is typically offered at the start of the flu season. It’s entirely possible for someone to contract the flu in the days before getting the flu shot. It takes a few days for the immunity to develop after receiving the shot, so in these cases, the patient will get sick.
Finally, many people mistakenly call a serious cold or even a stomach virus “the flu.” These are not influenza. If someone comes down with one after getting the flu shot, it is simply coincidence.
Myth 2 – They’re Just Guessing Which Strain to Put in the Shot
The flu shot contains several different strains of the influenza virus. The strains chosen are based on cutting-edge research to determine which strains are most likely to affect the population in 2019. While it is possible for a different strain to hit the community, the research is in-depth. According to the CDC, researchers will choose the three or four influenza viruses most likely to spread and lead to illness. This data comes from over 100 national influenza centers across the globe that monitor the flu all year long, as well as consultations with the World Health Organization. The strains chosen have a high likelihood of being the right ones.
Myth 3 – The Flu Isn’t Dangerous
For most healthy people, the flu is miserable, but not life. However, it kills between 291,000 and 646,000 people across the globe each year, so it is clearly a dangerous disease. Most people do not die from the flu itself, but rather from complications due to the flu, like pneumonia or a secondary infection like streptococcus. Organ failure from serious flu illnesses is also a common problem. The flu is what contributes to these deaths, and the flu vaccine has a high chance of preventing it.
Myth 4 – The Flu Vaccine Doesn't Work
This myth stems from the idea that the health officials are just guessing about the flu strain, and thus the vaccine often doesn't work. While it is possible for a strain to circulate in a community that was not included in the vaccine, the vaccine still protects a significant number of people in the community. According to the CDC, the vaccine reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40 and 60 percent in the population as a whole, and that is a significant reduction.
In addition, the flu vaccine reduces the severity of the illness for those who do end up getting sick with the flu in spite of being vaccinated. A 2018 study from the CDC found that adults who ended up hospitalized due to the flu and its complication were 59 percent less likely to end up in ICU if they were vaccinated compared to those who were not. Also, the hospital stay was an average of four days shorter for vaccinated adults compared to unvaccinated patients.
In 2019, public health officials must do their part to educate the people they serve about the truth behind the flu vaccine and the risk of the flu. With a deadly flu season approaching, getting more people to receive the shot becomes a community-wide priority
The Flu Shot Works, But More People Need to Get It in 2019
Clearly, the flu shot is an important public health tool. Unfortunately, these myths have caused many people to overlook this protection, and in 2019 that could be a deadly mistake. Improved education from public health officials on the local, state, and federal levels is a key factor in helping increase the number of people who take the vaccine.
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