Public health officials recommend getting a yearly flu vaccine to just about everyone six months and older. Still, only about half of Americans get the vaccination each year, and a new survey shows that a pervasive misconception about flu shots might be partly to blame.
More than half of the 700 parents who participated in a national survey by the Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital said they believe the flu shot could cause the flu. A third of those surveyed believed the flu vaccine doesn’t work.
The Centers for Disease Control has long been battling the mistaken belief that a flu shot causes the flu. That’s false — the flu vaccine does not contain live viruses and cannot make you sick, the CDC explains.
“The parts of the virus that are used in the vaccine are completely dead, so you cannot get the flu from the flu shot,” Dr. Jean Moorjani, a board-certified pediatrician at Arnold Palmer Hospital, reiterated in a news release that announced the poll findings.
Why Do People Think The Flu Shot Causes The Flu?
The flu vaccine can cause side effects such as soreness, redness and swelling near the shot site, as well as headaches, fever, nausea and muscle aches. These symptoms, according to the CDC, are typically mild and go away on their own within a few days. But this could be a point of confusion, with some mistaking these side effects as the actual flu.
“What people may confuse for the ‘flu’ are the aches and pains that may occur post-vaccination as the immune system responds to the vaccine — however, this is not influenza,” explains Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, a board-certified infectious disease physician and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
Also, Adalja says, the vaccine takes two weeks to provide protection. So it’s possible someone could get vaccinated and then become infected with the flu during that period. Alternatively, someone could be incubating the flu at the time of vaccination and develop symptoms post-vaccination, causing them to then mistakenly wag their finger at the vaccine for making them sick.
Another possibility? You may be exposed to a flu virus that’s not included in this season’s flu vaccine, according to the CDC. There are several viruses that circulate each year, and the flu vaccine is formulated (and mass-produced in advance) to protect against the viruses that scientists expect to be the most prevalent. So the flu shot’s effectiveness can vary based on how well the vaccine matches the viruses that are circulating that year.
How Effective Is The Flu Vaccine?
As far as effectiveness goes, recent studies show the flu vaccine can reduce the risk of flu illness by between 40 and 60 percent among the overall population, as long as most circulating viruses are well matched to the vaccine.
However, in 2016, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory committee stopped recommending FluMist because it didn’t perform well against a particular flu strain, the H1N1 strain. In some cases, the nasal spray vaccine offered only 3 percent protection for children between ages 2 and 17, compared with up to 63 percent protection from the shot.
The nasal spray vaccine has been reformulated and has returned for the 2018-19 flu season after a two-year absence. Public health experts hope the nasal spray helps increase vaccination rates; it’s easy to use in school clinics and is a good alternative for shot-averse kids. The CDC expects the nasal spray to be as effective as the flu shot this time around.
Why Doctors Push For Almost Everyone To Get The Flu Shot
The CDC recommends the flu shot for most people over the age of six months.
When a child gets the flu, they’re not just sick in bed and missing school for a week or more. The flu can have serious and even life-threatening consequences. In fact, 180 children died after contracting the flu during the 2017-2018 season, which is one of the most severe years on record.
Here’s how to know when you should go to the emergency room for flu symptoms:
Last flu season, throughout the country and across all age groups, 30,453 people were hospitalized because of the flu, according to the CDC.
In addition to the effectiveness of the flu shot, the survey from Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital also found that many parents question the vaccine’s safety. Thirty percent of respondents said they think the flu shot is a conspiracy, while 28 percent believe it can cause autism. This is misinformation that public health officials are aware of and looking to change.
“After extensive studies, we know that the flu vaccine is safe,” Moorjani said in a statement. “You cannot get autism from the flu vaccine. It is not a conspiracy for doctors to recommend the flu vaccine. Doctors recommend it because we know — based on science, research and facts — that it is the best way to protect yourself and your family against the flu.”
It’s not too late to get a flu vaccine. The CDC’s locator will help you find a flu shot clinic near you.