Breaking the Myth – Flu Vaccines and the Flu

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Dr. Don Donahue comments on a recent study citing that more than 40 percent of a sample of U.S. adults believe the myth that flu vaccines can give you the flu, and even correcting that misconception might not convince them to get the vaccine.

flu-shotThe power of mass media and social networking to shape preconceived notions is demonstrated daily.  The comments that follow contentious items in Facebook, Huffington Post, and even traditional forums such as the Washington Post and New York Times often tell more about the authors’ beliefs than any broader truths.

So too, are modern communication’s influences on public health.  One would imagine the odds are self-evident.  “During 2012, 48,277 cases of pertussis were reported to CDC, including 20 pertussis-related deaths. This was the most reported cases since 1955. The majority of deaths occurred among infants younger than 3 months of age.” (CDC, 2014)  In other words, as many people contracted whooping cough as live in Galveston, TX, and 20 babies died.  One can only imagine the lifelong heartbreak of the parents who declined to vaccinate against pertussis.  

Yet, our Western culture and the autocracy of the internet prevail.  In many ways, public health is a victim of its own success.  Absent visible evidence of illness, we assume there is no threat.  Instead, we are exposed to news that vaccines cause autism.  Lost in the on-line deluge is the discrediting of the autism claim, refutation of the evidence, and revocation of that author’s medical license.  One can only imagine the global damage this falsified study has caused.  

In remote regions of the Islamic world, health workers are attacked for distributing polio vaccine.  Religious zealots view Western medicine as a threat to the people and the faith.  It is a safe bet that most who read this passage view that resistance as foolish.  It is also probable that a majority also forgo annual influenza immunization.  After all, “it’s only the flu.”  It is estimated that between 3,000 and 49,000 people die of flu-related causes each year, depending on the severity of the season’s illness.  At the high end, this approaches the number of US troops killed in the entire Vietnam war.  The American public tired of the casualty count in the 20 years of engagement in Southeast Asia; yet it regularly accepts an annual influenza toll of similar numbers.  How different, then, are we from those who oppose polio vaccination?

It is important to remember that the danger in communicable illness is not only to the individual (i.e. you and whether you are vaccinated or not), but also to those around you.  Influenza is transmissible before symptoms emerge.  While whooping cough may be an inconvenience to an adult, it could be a death sentence to a 3 month old.

This brings us back to oft-repeated advice:  Vaccinations have greatly reduced the incidence of communicable illness.  This protects children and adults alike.  Frequent hand-washing is always a good idea.  Cough etiquette is more than polite, it protects people.  And the best place for a sick student, teacher, co-worker, or colleague is home — away from everyone else.  The inconvenience of that person’s absence is smaller than the impact of disease spread.

Until we accept the value of immunization culturally — as we did in the 50s and 60s, allowing such diseases as polio and small pox to be eradicated in our lives — needless illness and deaths will continue.  Perhaps if water cooler discussions highlighted why we did not get sick, we would be a healthier society.

Download the CDC’s Flu Vaccination Fact Sheet

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