Aaron E. Carroll provides a straightforward explanation as to why getting the flu shot is imperative to a healthy community. In his New York Times article “Still Not Convinced You Need a Flu Shot?” he notes we may be passing on the virus without realizing it, to people much more vulnerable than ourselves: “You can infect others a day before you show any symptoms, and up to a week after becoming sick. Children can pass along the virus for even longer than that.”
Carroll points out our lack of concern about the flu virus, so familiar every winter, is illogical: “Because the flu is so common, we tend to minimize its importance. Consider the contrast with how the United States responded to Ebola a few years ago. We had a handful of infections, almost none of them contracted here. One person died. Yet some states considered travel bans, and others started quarantining people.” He argues that we should be much more concerned about the flu, noting that influenza is the “only cause of death in the top 10 that could be significantly reduced by a vaccine. Lowering risks of heart disease, cancer or Alzheimer’s are much, much harder to do.” We have a way to decrease the morbidity and mortality from a common illness yet we choose not to harness that opportunity.
By looking at the history of the varicella vaccination, Carroll illustrates the benefit we gain through herd immunity and the ethical consideration of getting immunized even if you yourself are not at high risk. He notes that babies were dying from chicken pox prior to implementation of the vaccine, but “as rates of vaccination rose, the rates of death from varicella were low…. But more significant, from 2004 through 2007, not one child younger than 1 year old died in the United States from chickenpox. What was amazing about this finding was that we don’t vaccinate children that young for chickenpox — therefore, those babies’ deaths were not prevented because they were vaccinated. Their deaths were prevented because we vaccinated their older siblings.”
In a previous Narrative Medicine Monday post, I highlighted a New York Times article written by Dr. Danielle Ofri that I’ve used when teaching narrative medicine courses to medical professionals. It illustrates the challenge of communication between physicians and patients and why there often is a disconnect. How can we improve the dialogue to better inform the public and, ultimately, save lives?
Writing Prompt: Do you get your flu shot every year? Why or why not? Do you feel that you understand the reasoning for immunizations? What information might help you better understand? If you’re a medical provider, have you struggled to convey such information to patients? Think of such a time and write for 10 minutes.