As we enter flu season, both cases of it and discussion about vaccines spike upward. Though a lot of media attention is now devoted to anti-vaccine hotbeds like California and Oregon, casual uptake (or refusal) of the influenza vaccine is far less mentioned -- and far more prevalent across geographic and cultural regions. Honestly, not taking a flu vaccine will put a lot more people at risk than measles will.
At the American Council on Science and Health, we have obviously discussed both a lot, and we understand it's fair to be skeptical when it is known that last year's flu vaccine did not work very well. But it's bad when healthcare workers don't get it. And even for the general public, it's terrible reasoning to say you should never take one because of a flawed model anticipating how the next one will mutate.
And they do mutate, which is why getting one every year matters. To create a flu vaccine, scientists collect the most recent flu strains and then the FDA recommends which strains should be included in vaccines for the next autumn.
Trivalent flu vaccines protect against three flu viruses, for example, while quadrivalent protect against four. Flu vaccines are then manufactured in three ways now but the one in use for 70 years remains most popular -- vaccine viruses grown in eggs are injected into fertilized regular eggs and incubated, then the virus-containing fluid is extracted, the influenza viruses are killed and the virus antigen is purified and used in vaccines.
The manufacturing part is fine but anticipating which flu viruses will be raging through society next winter is tricky. On average, over the years, it is about 60% effective overall, and that is why some people consider it a roll of the dice and opt not to do it. But they are leaving out the fact that it includes a lot of healthy people who are putting senior citizens and babies and young people with immune issues at greater risk. Herd immunity helps, and even on a personal level if you get sick, it's less likely to be less debilitating if you have a vaccine. As the saying goes, "if you think you have the flu, you don't." It's awful.
As former ACSH trustee Dr. Henry Miller notes, you really need a vaccine if you fly, writing "after an airplane sat for three hours with its engines off and no air circulating, within three days, 39 of the 54 people on board contracted the flu, infected by a single passenger."
The march is on toward a universal flu vaccine but that's complex. Until then, get the annual one.