Before I get into this, everyone should check out PalMD’s post on flu–it’s a neat little post. One of the reasons that people don’t get flu shots is that we haven’t done a good job of explaining to people why they need the vaccine. Yes, it does significantly lower the risk of catching the flu (last I heard, the CDC estimated a 62% reduction, though these numbers are imprecise and bounce around). But what vaccination really does, just like coughing into your elbow and WASHING YOUR DAMN HANDS!, is protect other people from you.
Not only are there people who can’t take the vaccine, but the elderly and immunocompromised, even with vaccination, still have a hard time of it (think of it this way: if you’re training a guard dog, would you rather train a mastiff or a Pomeranian? A weak immune system can only do so much). Most importantly though, we need to lower the rate of infection among the ‘spreaders’–those who are coming in contact with lots of people and are healthy enough to bull their way through the initial symptoms instead of staying home (thereby infecting more people).
According to polling data, about half of us don’t think about the flu vaccine this way. Instead, they are only likely to get vaccinated once an outbreak starts, and, by then, the group effect of vaccination is limited. This requires lowering the barriers to getting the shot (cost and availability), as well as campaigns to convince people to think differently about influenza.
In other words, we need to ask not ‘how do I protect myself?’, but ‘how do I protect other people?’
So please help the rest of us and get your flu shot–better late than never (and next year, how about getting it in October?).
An aside: Ignoring people who have inchoate fears about the safety of the flu vaccine for adults, some people occasionally have a mild adverse reaction (I get mine yearly and have had this happen once), which typically involves very short term crudiness (slight temperature elevation and mild fatigue for a few hours–it wears off quickly as the vaccine, unlike a fully, functional virus, can’t replicate). If that’s why you don’t want to get the vaccine (though you should speak with your doctor about what happened), consider this: if you were hit that hard by the vaccine, just think how awful the real live virus would be.