Why Are So Many People Still Bypassing the Flu Shot?

Oct 30, 2014, 11:52 AM

Flu season in the United States typically runs from November through March, with the peak coming in January and February. But people can catch the flu both earlier than the usual start time and after the usual end of the season. In addition, the severity of the flu season can vary with from 3,000 to 49,000 U.S. deaths in a given year, an average of more than 200,000 hospitalizations and millions of illnesses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Flu shot season has a shorter time table, so many pharmacies and doctors’ office that are well stocked at the moment can run out before Christmas, making it difficult for people who put off their vaccinations to find a vaccine location and protect themselves.

And despite a yearly campaign to get people to roll their arms up, less fewer than half of adults and less than 60 percent of kids received a flu shot last year. NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Carolyn Bridges, MD, the CDC’s associate director for adult immunizations about what keeps people from getting the flu shot and how more people can be encouraged to get the vaccine.

NewPublicHealth: What is it that keeps people from getting the shot?

Carolyn Bridges: I think there are a number of things. Certainly, we have pretty good awareness about the recommendations for the influenza vaccine, although some people may just not realize that they are potentially at risk. The current recommendations call for all persons six months of age and older to get an annual flu vaccine, with rare exceptions. But the vaccine recommendations have changed over time and in the last few years have been broadened to include [just about] everyone. For some people the message hasn’t gotten to them that in fact they are now included in the group recommended for a yearly flu vaccine

NPH: What common misconceptions do people still have about the flu vaccine?

Bridges: In terms of the safety, some people question or are worried about getting the flu from the flu vaccine. That’s still a common comment that we receive. Sometimes people will certainly have body aches or some tenderness in the arm where they get their flu vaccine, but that’s certainly not the same as getting influenza, and those symptoms generally are very self-limited and go away within two to three days. But the flu vaccine cannot cause the flu. 

Flu vaccination of pregnant women is also very important; that decreases risk of severe disease in pregnant women, a group that is actually at higher risk of severe complications from flu. And vaccinating pregnant women also decreases the risk of severe disease in their infants up to the first six months of life. Infants are at the highest risk for severe complications of influenza, but they cannot be vaccinated until age six months.

NPH: Does getting the flu shot guarantee you won’t get the flu?

Bridges: No. The flu vaccine, while it is the best protection for influenza, is not a perfect vaccine. Effectiveness has in recent years been around 50 to 60 percent, with the vaccine you decrease your risk by half or more, but there will be some people who do get the flu even after getting the vaccine, but are likely to have much milder cases than they might have without the vaccine. And, the more people vaccinated, the more benefits we can see in terms of reduced illness in communities. There have been studies in Canada and elsewhere that show that when you get vaccination rates up to 80 percent, you can see a significant reduction in the community for flu even among people who didn’t get their own shot.

NPH: Once adults have the flu vaccine on their minds, what other immunizations should they be thinking about?

Bridges: Vaccinations recommended for certain adults include ones to protect against shingles and pneumonia and many people at risk still have not gotten those shots. Go here to find more information from the CDC on adult vaccines.

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This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.