Flu shots won’t get you sick: why everyone should vaccinate

Announcements of the approaching flu season have begun to sprout about campus.  Bulletins reading “It’s Time To Get Vaccinated” haunt dorm hallways, serving as an alarming reminder that our environment is septic.

Counseling, Health and Wellness Services (CHWS) has been recently advertising for their “Walk-in flu shots!” because influenza waits for no man, chiefly not in the patient waiting area (it’s a bit grimy in there). Yet many people, and perhaps a few students, have demurred at the idea of receiving any vaccination at all this year.

Flu vaccines have become startlingly controversial over the past decade.  The fact that debate exists around the topic isn’t what’s surprising, but the myths that perpetuate its heated discussion certainly are.

Many advocate against the flu shot out of a concern for what the vaccine consists of, a worry that isn’t completely unfounded.  Reports that the flu shot contains questionable ingredients, such as mercury and formaldehyde, are circulating the Internet.

Proponents of this claim believe these additives are pernicious.  Dr. David Williams, an Alternative Health specialist, contends in his weekly column that flu shots may very well induce a dysfunctional immune system. (Then again, it wouldn’t come as a surprise if someone developed a dysfunctional immune system just from reading his column.)

Yet this is a common misconception. Dr. Dennis Cunningham, an infectious disease specialist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, says that yes, mercury is used, but in incredibly small doses. Thiomerosal—a preservative that contains mercury—has never been shown to be harmful.

Mercury associated with nervous system damage is known as methylmercury, the kind that is present in fish.  In contrast, thiomerosal breaks down into what’s known as ethylmercury, which is processed differently than its neurotoxin counterpart.

Another component of the anti-vaccine argument is that the flu shot isn’t actually reliable.  The pharmaceutical companies endorse the flu shot only as a means of acquiring mass amounts of money, the world’s very own vaccination bandits.

Slate columnist Darshak Sanghavi argues that, despite what critics say, flu-control policies aren’t employed by the medical industry as a scheme to rob the people of their money, but rather to enact a scientific process.

“What critics of flu-control policies don’t get is that any global effort to stop an infection always goes through a process in which doctors learn more over successive battles and refine their strategies,” Sanghavi wrote.

Yet others argue that the side effects of the flu shot are worse than the flu itself.

However, many disagree.

“The flu shot is extremely safe,” campus medical coordinator Jenifer Gillis said. “It’s given to millions worldwide.  It’s better to get vaccinated than come down with the flu.”

Another abiding myth is that a flu vaccine will actually give you the flu. “When this happens, it’s usually coincidental,” Gillis said. It’s likely those who advance this argument don’t want to admit they simply have rotten luck.

Experts argue that flu shots are generally favorable for the public.  The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) says a flu shot is beneficial for any healthy person above the age of six months.  Interestingly, the CDC goes on to explain that this benefit varies from year to year, depending on how well the vaccine matches prevalent strains of influenza virus.

And here is truly the crux of the matter; the efficacy of a vaccination is often ambiguous.  The claim that the flu shot is hazardous is an invalid assertion.  If anything, the criticism should be as to whether the flu shot is effective.

Aaron Carroll, Professor of Pediatrics and Assistant Dean for Research of the Indiana University School of Medicine, states in his YouTube channel “Healthcare Triage” that vaccines not only keep oneself safe, but the others around you.

According to Carroll, vaccine success as a public policy depends not only on the protection of those who get shots, but also on the decreased likelihood that anyone will come into contact with the disease.  This is what’s known as “herd immunity:” once enough people are immunized, then there really can’t be an outbreak.

“Outbreaks occur because of a breakdown in herd immunity,” Carroll said.

The government does, however, respect the rights of individuals who decline vaccinations, either due to religious or personal reasons, for themselves or their children.  Yet if enough people aren’t immunized, and someone becomes sick, the disease will spread.  The more people catch it, more and more people are exposed to the virus­—which is precicely how an outbreak occurs.

If many people get the flu shot, and someone catches the flu, the likelihood of anyone else getting sick and spreading the disease is very low.  And if an outbreak were to occur, everyone is protected, even those who can’t get vaccinated.

According to Carroll, protecting as many people as possible from the virus is critical, because there are people who are susceptible to certain diseases but can’t be given vaccines due to medical reasons.

Babies, for instance, aren’t capable of receiving these vaccines due to their young age and are, therefore, always under the threat of infection. The same is true for elderly people, who may have to forgo the vaccine for health reasons but are more susceptible to the flu than a younger patient. And for people like these, with compromised immune systems and already tenuous health, a simple case of the flu may even be fatal.

“Immunization is so important because they allow us to protect those who cannot protect themselves,” Carroll said.

Widespread vaccination averts all people from getting sick, and when parents reject a flu shot for their child, they leave us all at increased risk.  Not only are they risking their own health, they’re putting everyone else in danger too.

If students are hesitant about getting a flu shot, here is there answer: there is no question that the vaccine does not give people the flu. In addition, the vaccine will even enhance one’s immune response to the flu.  Though the flu shot’s efficacy is unreliable, the solution isn’t to blame public health officials.

It’s clear that flu vaccines aren’t perfect; they do, however, significantly decrease the risk of coming in contact with the virus—an encounter no one would willingly experience, especially as the most homework-heavy part of the semester is set to begin.

It would behoove any student eligible for the flu shot to walk in to CHWS and get the vaccine.  If not for yourself, then for others around you—especially those who can’t accept the flu shot due to religious or medical reasons.  Students of the University: it’s time to get vaccinated.