By Malika Ramani, '21
A fever, a cough, a sore throat. Congestion, body aches, headaches. Chills, vomiting, pneumonia. No matter how its symptoms are described, the flu cannot be made to sound less debilitating that it is. And it warrants being taken seriously: last year alone, influenza killed more than 80,000 people and hospitalized an additional 900,000.  Despite this, however, a recent report published by CNN announced that this year, 34% of U.S. parents say it is unlikely that their child will receive the flu shot, with these concerned parents citing a plethora of reasons for why the vaccine is either ineffective, dangerous, or otherwise unnecessary. 
The potential dilemma of whether or not to receive a flu vaccine impacts youth and adults alike, yet vaccinating children takes precedence when their heightened susceptibility to the virus is taken into account. During last year’s flu season, 183 children died from flu-related illness, and hundreds more were hospitalized. Strikingly, according to the CDC, 80% of the children killed by the flu last year were unvaccinated. 
The CNN report, conducted by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, summarized an online poll administered in October that interviewed 1,977 parents who had at least one child.  48% of the parents polled said that they typically followed the advice of their child’s health care provider when making decisions such as whether or not to vaccinate against the flu, yet 21% did not remember what their health care provider had recommended.  Parents who vaccinated their children reported hearing more positive than negative feedback about the shot (by a dramatic margin of 4 to 1), whereas those decided against it reported hearing primarily negative commentary about the vaccine.  It is clear that pervasive misconceptions surrounding the flu significantly impact vaccination rates and thus necessitate clarification.
Many people believe that if they are healthy, they are unlikely to get the flu in the first place; they also believe that their clean bill of health will lead to experiencing less severe symptoms even if they do contract the virus. Indeed, it is true that individuals with diabetes, obesity, asthma, heart disease, or immunosuppressive diseases (such as HIV) have a heightened vulnerability to the flu, in addition to young children, pregnant women, and the elderly.  Regardless, otherwise “healthy” individuals can still acquire and be severely impacted by the flu. More importantly, the practice of vaccinating healthier individuals works to protect the entire community – particularly the aforementioned highly susceptible populations – via herd immunity: the more people in a population who are immune to the virus, the more difficult it is for the disease to spread.
Others choose not to receive the flu shot because of concerns that the flu vaccine is not entirely effective or that they will contract the virus from the injection itself. Many do not realize that it is impossible to get the flu from the shot because the vaccine uses an inactivated form of the virus, and they mistake the soreness and low-grade fever that can accompany the vaccine with flu symptoms when in reality, these are signs of the body starting to generate immunity against the virus. And indeed, the vaccine’s effectiveness, which is dependent on numerous factors, varies from year to year; health officials meet annually in February to decide which strains of the virus to include in the vaccine, yet the virus mutates at such a frequent rate that the vaccine cannot always generate effective immunity. Over the last decade, the flu shot has been about 44% effective, and health professionals unanimously agree that vaccinated individuals who still acquire the disease experience symptoms that are significantly less severe.  Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, insists that although the vaccine may not be perfect, its benefits are incontrovertible. During years when the strains in the vaccine closely matched the strains infecting the community, vaccinated individuals were between 40 and 60% less likely to have to see a physician for their infection.  In other words, being vaccinated against the flu can be the difference between experiencing mild symptoms for a couple of days and spending weeks confined to a hospital bed.
Health officials typically recommend that people be vaccinated by the end of October, given that it takes approximately two weeks for the body to generate antibodies that can fight the virus. Nevertheless, despite the fact that 2018 is quickly reaching its end, the CDC maintains that it is more beneficial to get the flu shot late in the year rather than not to receive it at all. And as the percentage of adults and children who obtain the flu shot continues to drop each year, it is clear that these misconceptions against the vaccine must be tackled head on in order to make this season as healthy as possible.
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