During the 2018-2019 influenza season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that there were between 36,400-61,200 flu deaths in the United States. The flu vaccine has demonstrated effectiveness in preventing – and reducing complications of – this common infectious illness. Tom Sequist, MD, Chief Quality & Safety Officer, Partners HealthCare, acknowledges that people can be hesitant to get the vaccine but says it’s important to pay attention to the facts. In his own words, he addresses patient concerns and debunks myths surrounding the flu vaccine.
Below are some statements made by my own patients that reflect the myths around flu vaccination with my responses with the facts:
Myth 1: “The last time I got the flu shot, it gave me the flu.”
• The flu shot cannot cause the flu! Flu shots either contain inactivated (“killed”) flu virus or only parts (genes) of the virus.
• A small percentage of people do have a mild reaction to the flu shot such as headache and muscle aches (or your arm may be sore around the shot itself). This is your body’s reaction to the flu shot, and is not an actual infection. These symptoms are much less severe than anything you would experience from the actual flu infection.
Myth 2: “I heard the flu shot didn’t even work last year.”
• The effectiveness of the flu shot last year was 44%. That means it decreased the percentage of people seeking care for flu-like illness by 44%, thereby preventing more than five million infections last year alone! That’s more effective than medications we use to treat many common illnesses.
• Of course, you can still get the flu after receiving the vaccine. However, if you received the vaccine, we know that your flu infection and symptoms will be much less severe.
Myth 3: “I would rather just get the flu; it’s not that bad.”
• The flu is a deadly illness. Don’t confuse this with the ‘common cold,’ which is a totally different virus. The flu accounts for approximately 50,000 deaths per year.
Myth 4: “I never get the flu, so I don’t need the flu shot.”
• This is just the luck of the draw. No one is immune to the flu without a vaccine. It is better to reduce your risk with the flu shot.
• When you get the flu shot, you are not only protecting yourself. You are protecting everyone else by preventing the spread of the flu, and this includes our patients. Referred to as “herd immunity,” it means that if everyone is immune, the flu virus cannot spread (‘the herd is safe’).
Myth 5: “I got the flu vaccine last year, so I don’t need it again this year.”
• Unfortunately, the immunity from the flu vaccine can wear off after a year. In addition, the flu virus mutates every year so you need an annual flu shot.
Myth 6: “I don’t want to get my shot too early. I want to wait until later in the winter so it lasts.”
• While the peak of flu infections is in February, these infections occur between October and April. It’s much better to get vaccinated early, since it takes a few weeks for the immune system to build up resistance. And if you wait, by the time you get flu symptoms, you’re already contagious. You can spread the flu for up to a day before you feel any symptoms.
Myth 7: “I have an allergy to the flu shot, so I cannot receive it.”
• True medical contraindications to the flu shot are rare, and they only include people with a history of Guillain Barre syndrome and those with prior anaphylactic reaction to the flu shot. You should talk to your physician before receiving the flu shot if you are currently moderately to severely ill (in which case you can wait until you recover).
• Egg allergy is not a contraindication to receiving the flu shot.
Massachusetts General Hospital’s Executive Vice Chairman, Department of Emergency Medicine, Ali Raja, also recently addressed flu shot myths and the importance of the vaccine here.