Fear of the flu vaccine

It’s flu season. We take mass transit and look nervously at the poor people snuffling into Kleenex, wondering if they’re contagious. In the office we hope our bleary-eyed colleagues will take a sick day, but we know they’re worried about losing their jobs if they do. When waking up each morning we check our vital signs, hoping there’s no aches or pains before making coffee.

Of course, if, like our Nano researchers, you’ve already had your flu shot this year, you’ll go about your day safe in the knowledge that you’re protected. According to the Centers for Disease Control a flu vaccination makes you at least 60% less likely to get sick this year.

For 2019 – 2020, your options include:

Wait. Flu shots aren’t 100% effective?

No – but 60% is better than zero.

We spoke to one of the Nano team en route to a meeting and asked if they were happy they got vaccinated and whether it had hurt.

“Yes, it did hurt,” they replied. “But only temporarily. I’m definitely happy I got protected. I used to get the flu and it wiped me out for weeks, never again. I’m doing everything I can to stay well this year.”

And did they have any “flu-like” symptoms from the shot itself?

“Sure, but that’s normal, that’s how vaccines work. For a day or so I felt a little sniffly, and tired, but I just pictured my immune system’s flu antibodies getting into gear and making me invincible against the season’s woes.”

“Plus I know by getting vaccinated, I’m contributing to “community immunity – the more of us who get protected, the less the germs spread amongst our friends, families and co-workers. We’re all stronger as a result.”

Why doesn’t everyone get the flu vaccine?

According to research published in the medical journal “Vaccine,” seasonal influenza is responsible for thousands of deaths and billions of dollars of medical costs each year. But influenza vaccination coverage remains substantially below public health targets because, the researchers found: “a substantial portion of the public (43%) believes that the flu vaccine can give you the flu.”

It doesn’t?

No, the flu vaccine protects you against the viruses that cause it. But we understand why there’s widespread disbelief – many people have a fear of needles and injections (it would be weird if one didn’t) and it’s convenient to let that fear make decisions for you. There’s also an enormous amount of misinformation about how vaccines work. But that’s why we’re here. Read on.

Life before vaccines

Before vaccines, life was precarious. Certain diseases, caused by viruses with no associated cure, would most likely kill you.

In 1918, at the end of WWI, which saw the biggest mobilization of humans the world had ever seen, a deadly virus struck 500 million people around the world. At the end of WWI, 500 million people was one-third of the planet’s entire population. The mysterious virus spread fast, and it’s estimated that 20 – 50 million died as a result of infection.

Is this the “Spanish Flu”?

Yes, but not because it originated on the Iberian Peninsula, as far as we know. In fact, medical research wasn’t as advanced as it is today, so we have no idea who, or where, “Patient Zero” lived. But here’s how it got its name:

During WWI Spain was “neutral” and so not subject to wartime censorship which nations deployed in order to keep their compatriots from freaking out (or spilling secrets to the enemy). This meant the first documented reports of a deadly pandemic originated in Spanish newspaper accounts – the news spread quickly – and that’s how it got its moniker.

It wasn’t until 1942 that Dr. Jonas Salk went to the University of Michigan to collaborate with his mentor, Dr. Thomas Francis Jr., on an influenza vaccine. This work formed the basis of the modern vaccination movement.

So how do vaccines work?

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) vaccines contain the same germs that cause disease, but they’ve been “killed” or weakened to the point where they don’t make you sick.  Vaccines stimulate your immune system into creating antibodies, which then fight off the (viral load) intruder. As a result, you develop immunity to that disease.

It’s not a permanent state though. As flu viruses morph and change (or combine) over the years into different “strains,” it’s important to get the vaccine which contains the latest nasties so your body can deal with the enemy.

Protecting your immune system

There are many things you can do to help your immune system protect you from the flu virus, above and beyond getting vaccinated. The CDC recommends taking the following steps:

  1. Avoid close contact: Avoid close contact with people who are sick. When you are sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick, too.
  2. Stay home when you are sick: This will help prevent spreading your illness to others.
  3. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing.
  4. Washing your hands often will help protect you from germs.
  5. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth: Germs are often spread when a person touches something that is contaminated with germs and then touches his or her eyes, nose or mouth.
  6. Practice other good health habits: Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces at home, work or school, especially when someone is ill. Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids and eat nutritious food.

I’m ready to get my flu shot.

That’s great. Your primary care provider can give you the flu shot (and most, if not all, health insurers will cover the cost in full). Or you can go to a walk-in clinic at a local drugstore (there’s usually a fee, so check first). There are also campaigns in certain supermarket chains which have on-site nurse practitioners – and many of those will give you the shot for free. Don’t forget to get your “I got my flu shot” sticker to show everyone you’re helping with “community immunity” and keeping us all safe from harmful viruses.