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I'm a writer who dabbles in a little bit of everything: prose poetry, creative nonfiction, science communication. I've thrown it all in a hodgepodge mishmash here.

Your Friend the Flu Shot

Your Friend the Flu Shot

When I ask people if they’re going to get their annual flu shot, I hear a variety of responses, but if the answer isn’t “Yes!” or “Already did!” most are along the lines of “I’ve never gotten a flu shot”; or “I don’t need one” (a variation of the first); or “I’ve never gotten the flu; I’m sure I’ll be fine if I do get it.” And I imagine that if I lived on the opposite coast, I would hear mentions of the dangers of vaccines.

The flu seems to be misperceived as a severe cold; our collective memory of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic has receded far into the background, overshadowed by our fascination with and horror at World War I and simply the passage of time.The concept of 30 to 50 million dead [source] in a year seems to belong to a different era, one similar to the Plague years when the dead outnumbered the living. Perhaps this is because with the exception of the young, old, and immunocompromised, people survive the flu. Without any regular exposure to one of those populations, not getting a flu shot at first glance seems to have few, if any consequences.

(Even though the dreaded swine and avian flus are indeed influenzas, they seem to live outside our perception of the annual flu--a distant, faraway fear that have faded since the first panics.  They, too, have been replaced in our public fear by worries about Ebola and a general sense of panic about, well, everything from climate change to this week’s election of Donald Trump.)

The flu shot is a hassle to most of us--why schedule a nurse visit or go to a crowded clinic or see if your local drugstore has one when you can’t remember the last time you got sick, and you’ll be fine, anyway? Again, we underestimate the impacts of the flu. Even if most recover, recovery can last days or weeks. (I personally can attest that the last time I had the flu, I had to rely on an inhaler for some time afterward because I simply couldn’t clear the cough.)

On top of these inconveniences, misconceptions surrounding the flu shot dissuade people from ever even considering receiving one. Basic misunderstandings about live versus attenuated virus, immune system response, and lasting immunity deter us from receiving a flu shot--we believe that a shot will induce the flu because we simply don’t understand what a vaccine is and what it does. Or we fall into the trap of believing that vaccines are “unnatural” and an assault on our bodies; it is somehow an assault to protect yourself from infection protection through artificial means, as if the wracking cough and aches and chills are more natural and beneficial. I’ve even heard it described as weakness. (Please visit this page from the CDC on flu vaccine FAQs.)

Disturbingly, many of my millennial peers are avoiding flu shots based on these misconceptions--it won’t protect them from flu; it will get them sick. Other reasons include cost (have no fear, the cost of vaccines will be addressed  in another post), but when you consider the cost of missed work, that vaccine cost seems a little less steep. Some of these concerns are founded, because, of course, there have been years where the vaccine was wildly ineffective. The 2014-2015 flu vaccine was much less effective than the usual rate of 60-90% (that was the year I last had the flu, and yes, I did get the vaccine). To give you a sense of the severity of that flu season, 148 pediatric deaths from the 2014-2015 flu season have been recorded. Part of the problem is that flu viruses are constantly mutating and changing, and the vaccine is geared towards what researchers know at the time of production, not necessarily which strains will be most common in any given year.

Much has been written on how vaccination is more than a personal decision. As Eula Biss so beautifully describes in her book On Immunity: An Inoculation, “we owe each other our bodies,” and “from birth onward, our bodies are a shared space.” Considering how your choice might hurt or help others relies on how we understand what we owe one another within a community, a community that has grown unimaginably larger in the era of social media and globalization. How can we feel that our choices should affect anyone but ourselves when everyone else is a faceless blur of otherness? After this election, it is clearer than ever that we would like to help those who look, think, and act like us, and we are above all concerned with our own well-being.

It is often only when we are confronted with the potential, personal consequences of our choices that we concede that what we decide for ourselves can be a de facto decision for others.

On the morning that my company brought in a nurse to administer free flu shots, I casually asked a coworker if he was receiving one. He joked that one of our c-suite execs, a man who prides himself on masculinity, when asked if he was getting a flu shot, merely replied, “Do I look like someone who would get a flu shot?” The coworker went on to say that no, he wouldn’t get one--why would he need it? He never gets the flu, anyway.

In a fit of annoyance, I said, “But what if you do get the flu? It doesn’t just affect you; you could actually get someone else sick, like a baby or an old person or someone with a bad immune system.”

He paused at that and said, “Oh, like Rachel?” (confusingly, a coworker struggling with autoimmune problems happens to share first names with me). Exasperatedly I emphatically responded, “Yeah.” And then he thought, “Oh, maybe I should get one.”

We forget that influenza is not rhinitis or even a sinus infection; it is a respiratory disease whose aches and coughing, chills and fever, are far more debilitating than any case of rhinovirus you might get and whose effects can stay with you for far longer. The flu shot may not always protect you, but it decreases your chances of getting sick and getting someone else sick and in turn passing along that infection to those who may not be able to fight it off as well.

Perhaps we should imagine that the baby on the subway or the elderly person in the waiting room is not a stranger--it is our friend, our coworker, our grandparent, our niece or nephew. The seemingly healthy person who is immunocompromised is our best friend, our drinking buddy. After all, we owe it to each other. 

 

 

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