It’s time to give the flu vaccine the respect it deserves
Recently, I was talking with my pro-vaccine friends who became parents not too long ago. They have an eight-month old baby and are following the CDC’s recommended childhood vaccination schedule. They consider themselves to be strong vaccine supporters and trust in the science of vaccination and the protection vaccines provide. You can find Facebook posts of their baby immediately following her vaccine doses. In the pictures she’s smiling with captions like: “I got fully vaccinated and this is how happy I am about it only 3 minutes later.” However, when I brought up the flu shot they were quick to dismiss it.
Why is the flu vaccine viewed differently from other vaccines?
If I’m perfectly honest, there was a time when I too thought of the flu vaccine as somehow inferior and less important than the other vaccines. Data shows that I am not alone. Even though the flu vaccine is nearly universally recommended for individuals over 6 months old, it has one of the lowest coverage rates when compared to other vaccines. Last year, less than half of those eligible received the vaccine. People often opt out of the flu vaccine due to some key misunderstandings, but below are the compelling facts for consideration.
Here are the facts about flu strains.
Unlike other viruses, the flu is constantly changing. Each year influenza experts predict which strains of the virus will be most common and develop a vaccine to protect against those strains. Some years these predictions are better than others. The good news is that even when the vaccine does not match with the circulating viruses as perfectly as we hope, some protection is still better than no protection. And more good news: early tests indicate that this year’s vaccine is a better match than last, which will make it more effective against preventing the flu.
The flu vaccine cannot cause the flu.
The vaccine is comprised of either dead or weakened virus strains (depending on which vaccine you receive) making your likelihood of contracting the flu from the vaccine impossible. The flu vaccine takes up to 2 weeks to provide protection, so get your shot early to maximize its benefit.
The flu can be miserable and dangerous even for healthy people.
I used to think I was tougher than the flu. My immune system is strong – I can handle the flu. Let’s assume I’m right and that I survive two weeks of muscle aches, chills, sweats, fevers and vomiting caused by the flu. Many aren’t so lucky and by hosting the flu virus, I could pass it to others when I’m infected but have no symptoms. The flu is most dangerous for those 65 and over and infants under two, as well as people with common health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, and even pregnant women. Each year, thousands of hospitalizations and deaths are a result of the flu. By getting the vaccine, I not only protect myself from the dreadful symptoms but I also protect those around me who may be at a higher risk of suffering serious complications.
So get out there and get your flu shot! I may not have been able to persuade my friends but I’ll keep presenting them with the facts. The flu vaccine is available at pharmacies and doctor’s offices. I got mine and feel happy about not only protecting myself but relieved to be protecting vulnerable individuals in my community.
Growing the Immunity Community
WithinReach is excited to announce that the Immunity Community (IC) is growing! We are thrilled to expand the IC into Snohomish, Kitsap and Thurston Counties for the 2015 – 2016 school year thanks to generous support from the Group Health Foundation. We will continue our work in Bellingham and Spokane, building on the successful partnerships established over the last few years. A program of Vax Northwest, the IC is a proven community engagement campaign where parents who value immunization confidently speak in support of immunization in their communities. The program seeks to reduce vaccine hesitancy by mobilizing parents to have positive conversations about immunizations with other parents through a variety of activities, reinforcing vaccination as a social norm.
Immunity Community Parent Advocates (PAs) are volunteers connected to sites such as elementary schools, childcare centers, and preschools. Each fall a “Launch Meeting” kicks off the beginning of the IC program; PAs are trained to talk about vaccines, and brainstorm pro-vaccine actions they can take in their communities. Local health department staff also participate by presenting on current vaccine topics. Support continues throughout the school year with PAs receiving ongoing technical assistance, including monthly newsletters, flyers, postcards, shareable social media images and giveaways for events, among many other resources. PAs use multiple strategies to raise awareness and educate parents at their sites and in their communities, including social media advocacy, hosting events, distributing immunization-related materials, engaging in one-on-one conversations, and working to calculate and publicize site immunization rates. PAs share their stories about deciding to vaccinate their children and tailor their immunization advocacy to what works best for them and their communities.
Rigorous evaluation by the Group Health Research Institute’s Center for Community Health and Evaluation has shown this parent-to-parent campaign to be successful. Specifically, the IC has:
- Trained parent volunteers to be effective immunization advocates in their communities
- Raised awareness of vaccine-related issues in the focus area communities
- Increased support for vaccination among parents surveyed in focus area communities
- Facilitated a preschool policy change that has statewide impact
We are excited to continue the IC in Bellingham and Spokane and expand into Snohomish, Kitsap and Thurston Counties this fall because of the support from Group Health Foundation. The IC is part of a multi-faceted approach to health that WithinReach undertakes with its partners to promote a healthy Washington, and we look forward to continuing this outstanding body of work.
Do You Believe in Magic?
Dr. Paul A. Offit’s book Do you Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine examines the $34-billion-a-year business known as alternative medicine. Dr. Offit is chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and a vocal advocate for immunizations.
Dr. Offit understands the allure of alternative medicine and begins with the story of his own disappointing experiences utilizing the modern healthcare system. He gets multiple incorrect diagnoses, including one which led him to believe he was dying from a fatal illness for two years. In another incident, he awoke from what he had been assured would be minor knee surgery to learn that it had been a major surgery which would take a year to recover from. Offit says, “the miscalculation didn’t seem to surprise or upset the orthopedist. But it upset me.” Through misadventures and mixed advice, Offit looks into the chasm between modern and alternative medicine.
Offit argues that the popularity of media celebrities who promote alternative therapies, such as Dr. Mehmet Oz, comes from their offer of “an instruction book for something that doesn’t come with instructions: life.” These superstars, as he calls them, claim that following their advice will enable you to live longer, love better, and raise happier children. Who doesn’t want the playbook for how to live life? Unfortunately, this playbook is often full of medicine that doesn’t work.
One chapter is dedicated to the myth that vaccines cause autism, a belief propagated by celebrities like Jenny McCarthy. Offit doesn’t fault parents for searching for a cause for their child’s autism. He understands how easy it is for parents to believe in untested theories and describes how the unfounded fear of vaccines has allowed a resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases in the United States and incited parents to fear vaccines more than the diseases they prevent.
Part of the appeal of alternative medicine is that it is personalized. Offit acknowledges that modern medicine often leaves a patient feeling more like a number than an individual. He recognizes how the fluidity of modern medicine can be unsettling, highlighting that many alternative medicines have remained unchanged for hundreds even thousands of years, which begs the question: Haven’t we increased our knowledge of human anatomy and disease over these years?
The continual evolution of modern medicine should be comforting. We are constantly learning and applying that knowledge to medicine, which in turn adapts – resulting in new and changing treatments and recommendations.
Paul Offit is a supporter of medicine that works – he does not discriminate against type of medicine, whether alternative or conventional, he only distinguishes between medicine that can be proven to work and medicine that only pretends. Offit argues that proper evaluation of all medicine is paramount. With over 40 pages of notes and selected bibliography, Offit uses the platinum standard in scientific reasoning—a case-control study—to make his point. If the treatment proves to make a difference in comparison to its control than he simply calls it medicine that works. Summing up the timely takeaway message of the book, he writes:
“Although conventional therapies can be disappointing, alternative therapies shouldn’t be given a free pass. I learned that all therapies should be held to the same high standard of proof; otherwise we’ll continue to be hoodwinked by healers who ask us to believe in them rather than in the science that fails to support their claims. And it’ll happen when we’re most vulnerable, most willing to spend whatever it takes for the promise of a cure.”