To Flu Shot, or Not to Flu Shot

January 16, 2013
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My 7 year old daughter likes to think she can manipulate me.  Maybe she can.  So when it came time for the flu shot, she put on her most adorable face, and said in the saddest voice, “I don’t want to get a flu shot.”  Being the sympathetic father, I gave her a hug, kissed her on the head, and said, “I know, but you’re getting one anyway.”

Colds are a part of life.  That’s the way it is.  But the flu is different.  Although far less common than the … well, “common cold,” the flu typically hits hard and fast.  One moment you are fine, then an hour later, you have fevers, fatigue, cough, congestion, and every inch of your body hurts, even your hair.  Yes, the flu can be preventable, but the only effective means of naturally boosting your immunity to the influenza virus is clear:  vaccination, colloquially known as the “flu shot.”

The accumulated knowledge on vaccines, including flu shots, is quite vast.  We know about the benefits, risks, dosages, effectiveness, and side effects of all vaccines.  And as the years pass, our knowledge continues to grow.  In fact, if you don’t believe in any aspect of modern medicine, yet believe in vaccinations, you would still be logically consistent.  Because the data for vaccines is so well studied, it makes the rest of modern medicine far less certain in comparison.

Many people notice that when they did receive a flu shot in the past, they still got the flu, or actually became sick from the shot.  Let’s keep several ideas in mind.  The overall effectiveness of the flu shot is only 60%.  So it may not be enough to use personal experience to judge effectiveness.  It can be helpful, like all medical treatments, just not a perfect guarantee.  But 60% odds of effectiveness for any medical treatment is actually considered very good.  For perspective, antibiotics for a sinus infection is less than 10% effective, but this is admittedly not an apples to apples comparison.

Does the flu shot cause the flu?  Experts say “no.”  You may disagree.  Who is right, and how do we know?  When research trials compare the flu shot to placebo (salt water/saline injections), the risk of flu symptoms can be almost 20% afterwards.  That is 1 in 5 people who get sick after the flu shot.  But this is the same if you received the flu shot, or no vaccine at all.  Scientific conclusion?  You may get sick in spite of the flu shot, just not because of it.

In addition, we need to consider herd immunity.  Herd immunity is when enough people are immune to the virus, that the virus no longer can survive in a given group of people.  This then protects everyone else, who either did not get vaccinated, or were just in the 40% ineffective group.  Again, the evidence for herd immunity is very good, but we do need to have an overwhelming majority of vaccinated people to create this situation.  This is why smallpox is extinct in the wild, and polio is extinct in the US.

So should you get the flu shot?  Yes.  The evidence for it is clear, and any other prevention or treatment for the flu, if effective at all, is going to be vastly inferior.  And knowing that, I’ll be willing to endure my daughter’s inflicted tears another season.  Do you have any other concerns about the flu shot, or vaccines in general? Please let me know. I look forward to your comments.

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