As you’ve probably heard by now, this is shaping up to be a really shitty flu season. According to NPR, flu is rampant in 46 states and is sickening people harder and earlier than usual. The H3N2 influenza A subtype is most prevalent this year, which NPR describes as a “particularly nasty” strain of the flu.
Fan-freaking-tastic. Excuse me while I go out and buy a bucket of hand sanitizer and wrap myself in a bubble until June.
If all that wasn’t bad enough, it turns out that the flu shot isn’t supposed to be very effective this year, with some experts warning that it may only have a 10% effectiveness rate (flu shots are usually 40-60% effective, according to The New England Journal of Medicine).
Dear God, that kind of information legit gives me a panic attack. I will admit that I may have a slight touch of hypochondria, but I think anyone who hears grim statistics like this might start to feel a bit on edge, especially when you think about just how sick the flu can make you, and how vulnerable our little ones are to the effects of it.
Unfortunately, some people hear statistics like these and decide that it’s the perfect opportunity to point out how useless and ineffective the flu shot is. “See, this is why I never even bother to get one,” they say.
Or, if they’re of a particular mind-set, they use this as an opportunity to bash vaccinations in general, and explain why they are somehow much worse than the diseases they are meant to protect us from. (I’m not even going to address these claims at this point. Vaccinations are effective and important. Science backs this up. Case closed).
But here’s what any flu shot skeptics need to understand: Not only do flu shots minimize your chances of catching the flu (and even 10% is better than nothing), it also can reduce the severity of your symptoms if you end up getting the flu.
And this is a very big deal indeed. Let me explain.
It’s true that the flu isn’t always a death sentence for people who catch it. Most people just end up with an awful week or so of being laid up in bed and feeling like they have been run over by a car (I had it a few years ago, and that is exactly how it felt).
But for certain populations—particularly children, people with health conditions, and the elderly—the flu can lead to hospitalizations, and even death. Each year, it’s estimated that 36,000 people die from the flu (or complications from it), and 200,000 are hospitalized because of it.
And that’s where the extra protection of flu shot comes in. A 2017 study in Clinical Infectious Diseases (CID) found that among people who were vaccinated against the flu but caught it anyway, their chances of hospitalization and death were significantly reduced.
As the CDC explains in their synopsis of the study results: “[F]lu vaccination reduced deaths, intensive care unit (ICU) admissions, ICU length of stay, and overall duration of hospitalization among hospitalized flu patients. This study is an important first step in better understanding whether flu vaccines can reduce severe flu outcomes even if they fail to protect against infection.”
The study found that adults who had been vaccinated were 52-79% less likely to die of the flu even if they caught it. Or, to put it another way, an unvaccinated adult was 2 to 5 times more likely to die of the flu than a vaccinated adult.
Clearly, the flu isn’t something any of us should take a chance with, and it’s great news that the flu shot can give us that extra protection should we catch the flu. Even if the flu vaccine is only partially effective, there are still plenty of important reasons to get the flu vaccine each year.
This particular study just looked at adults. But similar results were found in children. An April 2017 study published in Pediatrics found that the flu shot significantly reduced a child’s likelihood of dying from the flu.
“Influenza vaccination was associated with reduced risk of laboratory-confirmed influenza-associated pediatric death,” wrote the study’s authors. “Increasing influenza vaccination could prevent influenza-associated deaths among children and adolescents.”
BAM. If that doesn’t make you vaccinate your children every single year, I don’t know what will.
Of course, besides getting vaccinated, we all just need to take proper precautions against the flu. Wash your freaking hands. Eat well and exercise to strengthen your body and immune system. And PLEASE, stay the home if you are sick. And most seriously: stay the hell away from babies and the elderly.
I think we can all agree that it would be much better if the flu shot were more effective. The good news is that scientists and doctors agree with you, and are working their tails off to improve the shot and ward off a flu epidemic. Let’s keep our fingers and toes crossed that this happens sooner rather than later.
But meanwhile, we need to take what we can get. And even during years that flu shots don’t afford 100% protection against getting the flu, they do greatly reduce the likelihood of anything awful happening to you or our loved ones should you catch the dreaded flu.
So, get the damn shot. And make sure your kids and their grandparents get it too.