VacciNerds Explain: Why You Need a Flu Shot

There’s a deadly virus about to sweep through the United States. Over the next few months thousands of people will lose their lives. Hundreds of thousands will be hospitalized. Schools will be on alert. And hand sanitizers will become a fixture in public buildings.

You might think this terrible virus must be Ebola. But we’re talking about the flu.

Flu is not “the sniffles.” It’s not just a bad cold. And it’s not a stomach bug that passes in a day or two. Every year more than 200,000 are hospitalized — and an average of 23,000 Americans die — because of it.

Seriously. Influenza is no joke.

More than 100 children died from the flu during the 2013-2014 in the U.S. Ninety percent of those kids had not been vaccinated.

Which isn’t all that surprising. Less than half of the U.S. population receives the flu vaccine every year. When you consider young adults (aged 18 to 49), less than a third gets immunized. With coverage rates like that, it’s no wonder that five to 20 percent of Americans (an estimated minimum of 15 million)  are affected by influenza annually.

One common reason for skipping the flu shot is the belief that “I’m not at risk—I won’t get the flu.” We tend to vastly OVER estimate the risk of bizarre, outlier events like Ebola while simultaneously UNDER estimating our risk of contracting much more common, highly infectious (but with admittedly lower case-fatality rates) viruses, like influenza.

A recent Gallup poll illustrates this quite nicely. Fourteen percent of respondents thought it very or somewhat likely that someone in their family would contract Ebola, while 83 percent thought it not too or not at all likely. In May 2009, the numbers were about the same regarding swine flu (20 percent “very or somewhat likely” vs. 79 percent “not too likely or not at all likely). But the average American is many, many times more at risk of catching the flu than they are of catching the Ebola virus. About six Americans are believed to have contracted Ebola so far, compared to the between 14 and 34 million people in the US who had H1N1 flu during the 2009 pandemic.

But while we’re still months (if not years) away from an Ebola vaccine, we do have a safe and effective vaccine against influenza.

And it’s not just for very young kids or aging adults either. Everyone over 6 months should talk to their doctor about getting a flu vaccine, as well as which formulation is right for them.

Even if you’re young and healthy (you’re still at risk).

Even if you’ve heard it can cause the flu (it can’t).

Even if you think it doesn’t work. (It absolutely does. Flu vaccination is estimated to prevent roughly 2 million cases of flu and 18,000 flu-related hospitalizations every year.)

Because here’s the thing about getting your flu vaccine: It’s not just about you. If you get the flu, you can spread it to other people — even if you don’t have any symptoms.

While washing your hands and covering your cough are great ways to limit the spread of the flu, the single best thing you can do is simple: GET A FLU SHOT.

Don’t know where to go? Check out the Vaccine Finder for vaccination locations near you.

Jane manages the Vaccine Finder project at Health Map, the host site of the Disease Daily. Robyn is a contributing writer for the Disease Daily and works as a project manager for a non-profit focused on vaccine education. Both are fully up-to-date on their immunizations.

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