Still Thinking About Not Getting A Flu Shot? Think Again.

In the United States, the flu season can range from November through March, and even past March in some years. Here, a CDC employee receives a flu vaccine from CDC Staff Nurse. (James Gathany/CDC)

In the United States, the flu season can range from November through March, and even past March in some years. Here, a CDC employee receives a flu vaccine from CDC Staff Nurse. (James Gathany/CDC)

This week, I found myself taking part in something I typically try to avoid: a public debate on Facebook.

It wasn’t about politics but another hot topic these days: the flu.

My friend posted that she was still undecided on whether she should get a flu shot. I was surprised. We’re in the midst of a flu emergency here in Boston: 700 cases of the flu have been confirmed so far this season — that’s 10 times the confirmed cases during last year’s entire flu season. My co-workers are dropping like flies. And despite this being only the second year I can remember getting the flu vaccine in my adult life, to me it seemed simple: get the vaccine, reduce your risk of getting sick.

But for some, it’s not. Here are some of the arguments I’ve come across:

Argument 1: “The vaccine isn’t all that effective.”

Dr. Ben Kruskal, chief of infectious diseases at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, told us last month that while a variety of studies have come out recently looking at this issue, the effectiveness of the flu vaccine is hard to measure.

“There are a lot of studies that came out over the last five to ten years, many of which were not very rigorous methodologically, and showed very rosy numbers for the efficacy of the vaccine. And more rigorous studies came out more recently showing that it’s not as good as we thought it might be.”

One of those recent studies was a report from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. It found that while the flu vaccine provides more protection than being unvaccinated, it is less effective than most routinely recommended vaccines. It also asserts that the perception that the current vaccine is highly effective is preventing the development of better flu vaccines.

“The safety profile is actually quite good. But we have oversold it,” the center’s director Michael Osterholm told the New York Times. “Use it — but just know it’s not going to work nearly as well as everyone says.”

Argument 2: “It’s too late now.”

Dr. Anita Barry, director of the Boston Infectious Disease Bureau, says it’s not too late to protect yourself.

“There is time for people to still get vaccinated and they should get vaccinated,” Barry said. “Even if it doesn’t completely prevent you from getting influenza, we know that it will result, in most people, in less severe illness.”

Flu levels typically don’t peak until mid-February, but know that it takes two weeks for the vaccine to provide protection against the virus.

Argument 3: “I got the flu from the vaccine once.”

Though it is common to get muscle aches or a mild fever after your flu shot, you can’t catch the flu from it because the injectable vaccine carries dead flu virus. (See argument 5)

Argument 4: “Vaccines contain mercury.”

Multiple-dose vials of the flu vaccine do contain thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative. While there is a lot of controversy surrounding the use of thimerosal in vaccines, the CDC stands by its safety.

That said, single-dose units of the flu vaccine and the nasal spray are both made without thimerosal.

Argument 5: “I know people that get the shots and still get sick.”

It’s true: You can still get the flu even if you get the vaccine.

As NPR reports, while the flu vaccine is the best way to protect yourself, it’s not perfect. It takes two weeks for its protections to kick in and:

The vaccine is only about 60 percent effective. So some people can get the flu even though they were vaccinated because the shot just didn’t work for them. The vaccine, for example, tends to work less well in the elderly.

And while the CDC says this year’s vaccine is well matched to fight the most common strains circulating this season, Dr. Robin Colgrove of the infectious disease division of Mount Auburn Hospital told us he is seeing more confirmed cases, using the rapid antigen test, in people who’ve been vaccinated than normal.

“Those cases have been mostly mild cases and it may be they have partial protection from the vaccine,” Dr. Colgrove said.

Argument 6: “I’m healthy, I don’t need the vaccine.”

Anyone who gets the flu can experience complications. And while you might not be concerned about getting the flu, others around you could be — especially if you spend time around those at high risk for getting the flu like, according to the CDC, older people, young children, pregnant women and people with certain medical conditions.

The CDC says the vaccine tends to work less effectively in seniors, who are also at the greatest risk for developing serious complications as a result. Not getting vaccinated means there’s a higher chance you could end up spreading the virus to others.

My own take away: While the vaccine isn’t perfect, it still lowers your risk of getting or spreading the virus. Either way, getting the vaccine is a personal decision, or as one of my Facebook friends put it: “It’s up to flu.”

Have any other arguments for or against the flu vaccine? Tell us in the comments. 

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  • AshleyBurt

    Not getting a flu shot is selfish. You do what you want at therisk of others getting sick because you don’t kno we facts and think the at the flu virus is manufactured by some money hungry dictatorship? Completely selfish! You could be carrying the virus and unknowingly infect someone that is immunocompromised or elderly they come down with the flu get very sick and die. And the chance of that could have been reduced if you had been a contributing member of society and got your flu shot. Totally selfish and ignorant.

    The shot cannot give you the flu. Nettie pots and ginger do not prevent the flu. This isnt 1465. We have advanced a little bit since the stone age.

  • Firstline Media

    Check out Lee Majors’ mission against the flu http://bit.ly/GJwWI6 share this with your loved ones, especially people 65+

  • learn-your-truth

    By the way, Dr.Oz said, “At home I’m Mr.Oz, not Dr.Oz, so my wife and children will not be getting the flu shot.” Yes, I saw the news interview with my own eyes. Hello! Are we good little sheeple or what?
    Do some research, pharma is a greedy, corrupt, hierarchy corporation, not your mommy! Not your mommy. Mommy loves you and cares about you….notice the difference and we can turn things around together in a unified manner. Throw corruption under the bus!

  • learn-your-truth

    This is ridiculous! You don’t mention the high number of people who have become deathly ill from flu shots & vaccines. Why do journalists love to ride over that? I speak from experience. I’ve known several people who have almost died from the flu shot, my son had a severe reaction to a vaccine that affected his immune system, my pug almost died from a vaccine – should I go on? Then you actually say, “my co-workers are dropping like flies!” Really? Who feeds you this garbage? Fear, fear, fear. People aren’t dropping like flies! Stop with the drama!
    There is no safe mercury, broken down or otherwise! If you listen to your corrupt government, the CDC, AMA, WHO and of course the media, then you’ll never know the truth, -they can’t even agree with each other. They’ve told so many lies, they have no idea what the truth is! Most people should be realizing by now that big pharma keeps people sick and steers them away from natural, healthy alternatives that are already tried and true. Its a huge pyramid scheme! Your sources are controlled sources and a good journalist, is one who seeks the truth outside of those shady sources and does not believe everything they hear from inter-connected corrupt sources. I’ve been researching this stuff for years, people need to learn the truth for themselves and stop listening to these types of media lies that coerce you into doing things you know don’t feel are the right things to do, especially that uneasiness you get when they’re vaccinating your children. If you’re questioning yourself, then there’s a reason. People need to learn to trust their own intuition and stop listening to everyone else, whether its your doctor or your mother!
    The way to prevent flu is a proper hand washing, high ph diet and immunity boosting supplements, etc. The alternatives are much safer than the flu shot. Trust me, I haven’t had the flu in 14 years at least.

    • AshleyBurt

      Where is your research? What are your credentiaks to make outlandish claims like these.theshot does NOT give you the flu! Its a dead virus. You might catch other strains and become sick.the rate of people deathly ill with the flu would be astronomical without the availability of a vaccine. Im so sick and tired of the excuses to not get a flu shot and claims by people that dont even know how it works. Many say they dont want to be inkevted with foreighpn proteins. Your whole body is made of proteins, all made of the same amino acids that make up plants animals and viruses. The body can degrade and recycle a lot of what you put into it. Long story short, Vaccines arent poison. My intuition is to have my family and myself vaccinated. We are rarely sick but our coworkers call in sick all the time this time of year and kids miss school and day care, yet I havent called in in 5 years over an infectious illness and haven’t had much more than seasonal allergies.

      Im tired of all this preposterous excuses, you want to go get other people sick? Fine. If you all get sick, then all I can say is there are vaccines available but you all were too haughty and all knowing to realize what’s best for your health.

  • Gary

    Perhaps it would be less of an “emergency” if all the little babies with the flu who are clogging emergency rooms would simply phone in sick and drink a lot of orange juice for a few days. In my city, they are turning away women in labour from hospitals because too many crybabies with the flu are spreading it all over from the E.R.

    So unless you are a senior, have other underlying medical conditions or are an actual little baby, please cut our stressed out medical systems some slack and suck a lemon.

    That and some ginger, garlic and cayenne pepper with honey. I just caught the flu and I tried that chased by a few stiff shots of Irish whiskey and I’m kicking viral ass. Repeat as needed.

    • AshleyBurt

      In most hospitals, facemasksare required with all suspected flu patients,as well as suspected airborne illnesses like TB. Unfortunarely many are still using the er for non emergencies even with obamacare.

  • amgive

    eat well and promote gut health to build up your immune system. According to the NYTimes, the flu vaccine is “over-promoted” and “over-hyped” and “all public relations” http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/05/reassessing-flu-shots-as-the-season-draws-near/

  • Geothedutchman

    Argument number 6: the Doctor I heard interviewed on PBS about flu shots admitted he had not had a shot and would not get one. (He recommended it for everybody else.) A Doctor of mine whose judgment I respect mentioned offhand to me he did not get flu shots. These Doctors have far more exposure than I do and yet they personally decline the flu shot. It’s reasonable to believe these Doctors know more than I do about it and I choose to follow their example.

  • m

    Why doesn’t anyone talk about more healthy ways to prevent flu? Netty pots are incredibly useful, washing hands, and I have found eating fresh ginger, honey and lemon in hot water to work wonders in preventing illness (could it be because no one is making any money on this approach). Apparently there is a lot of $$ to be made on these flu vaccines and I believe that is what much of the hype is about. Does CVS really care so much about me getting a flu shot that they will give me a 25% off shopping pass for the day when I get it. What a benevolent organization!!
    I would like to know how science can prove if I get a flu shot and still get the flu that it made it less severe because I had the shot?

    • AshleyBurt

      Honestly I doubt that 25% off is going to come at a gain made on 1 measly flu shot. Im tired of people thinking its about money. Its about trying to keep as many people well, out of the hospital and alive as possible each year d uring flu season. People DIE every year from it. Are people really going to be so ignorant to think flu shots are a money making scheme. Give me the numbers and ill listen, otherwise I see air under you but no leg.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Christine-Ashton/682395281 Christine Ashton

    Thimerosal may have mercury, but it’s the type that breaks down in the body. It isn’t the kind that causes mercury poisoning.

  • hd

    it hurts my arm!

  • David

    How about: You can get the vaccination for the ONE virus… but do people know how many other viruses are out there? Millions. so you can stop one and still get ill from another.

  • Tom

    Add some lemon juice (citric acid) or vinegar (acetic acid) to your alcohol hand sanitizer to give much longer residual & better (30X) protection against viruses. Adding acid is doubly important since some viruses do not have a lipid covering and are not killed by alcohol but are killed by acid so your homemade alcohol-acid combination will protect you against them too.

    Use after pumping gas, using money, holding restaurant menus (more germs than restaurant toilets), etc.

    http://aac.asm.org/content/54/3/1363.full

    The ethanol-containing hand disinfectants were significantly more effective than hand washing with water or with soap and water for removal of detectable rhinovirus from the hands in this study. Furthermore, a formula containing organic acids and ethanol resulted in residual activity that significantly reduced virus recovery from the hands and rhinovirus infection for up to 4 h after application. Although the alcohol hand sanitizers appear to be effective for removal of virus from the hands, efforts to demonstrate prevention of viral respiratory infection in the natural setting with these agents have been disappointing (1, 2). This disparity may reflect inconsistent compliance with hand cleansing after contamination or inadvertent recontamination after cleansing. These concerns might reasonably be addressed by efforts to increase compliance or by a hand treatment that provides residual protection for some period of time after application. Organic acids have previously been shown to have residual activity against rhinovirus (3). This study suggests that the combination of malic and citric acid may provide longer residual protection than the previous formulation.

    • AshleyBurt

      One pifall in your theory: flu is also airborne.

  • Reasonable?

    Why not give businesses an incentive to do this work?

    How about giving businesses f flu tax credit, if 85 to 90 percent of employees who work in MA get vaccinated on a given year?

    I think we’re seeing a trend of mild seasons that cause low vaccine rates, then severe season that have low rate of vaccination. We’ll continue to struggle with this recency bias of human beings until a better structure is put in place.