Talking Points About the Flu

  1. One of the most frequently cited reasons of HCWs for not getting the flu shot are that they "never get the flu."  In fact, they may not get the flu.  The attack rate in any given year is somewhere in the 5-15% rate but not having had it for one year doesn't give you any protection in other years.  In fact, if an individual has not had the flu in several years, he/she will likely not have any immunity to any of the viral strains that are circulating this year and may be more likely to get the flu.  In addition, although they may feel they never get the flu, individuals may get a light case and may not realize that they have indeed had the flu but the next year it may not be as mild a case.  
  2. It's important to protect others, such as our families and our patients, besides ourselves.  In the past few years, previously healthy children have been hospitalized from respiratory complications of flu, so if someone lives with or has frequent contact with children, getting vaccinated is important.  In addition to children, the elderly and chronically sick can suffer major consequences and death from flu so if someone has contact or lives with an elderly individual or an ill spouse or relative, getting immunized is important to protect our loved ones.  
  3. You may be fortunate and get a light case of flu but even if you don't feel very ill but have a cough you can infect other people, some of whom may get very sick from influenza.  A light case in one person does not mean that it will be a light case if that person infects someone else.  Everyone is different in their resistance to getting sick.  We know that health care workers will come to work even when they are sick and this can be a danger to patients.  On the other hand, the hospital functions best when each and every person is able to work, so doing what we can to avoid getting sick and missing work is part of our job.  
  4. The flu can be a devastating disease, particularly for children, the elderly or people with diseases of the heart, lungs, nerves and muscles and immune systems.  Each year 200.000 people in the US are hospitalized from influenza illness and 30,000 die from the flu or its complications.  If you can save even one hospitalization, by getting a safe, simple, free shot, that would be a great thing to do.  
  5. You might think that if we want to protect the elderly, children or sick people from getting flu from healthy people, why don't we just vaccinate all these target groups and leave the healthy people alone?  The reason is that healthy people make the most antibody from the shot and will be most protected but the special groups of people we are trying to protect often are the ones whose immune system doesn't work as well and they don't build enough immunity even though they get the flu shot.  Simply put, the less you need the shot, the better you will respond to it.  So the healthy people should do their part to help the sick-that's what being a "health care worker" means.  
  6. People often cite the fear of "getting the flu" from the vaccine.  In fact, that cannot happen.  You are no more likely to get flu from the influenza shot than you are to get Hepatitis from a Hepatitis vaccination.  These are inactivated vaccines containing no live virus.  The vaccine contains killed, noninfectious viruses.   They are made noninfectious by using only part of the whole virus.  These parts of viruses tell our immune system to make antibodies but cannot actually attack our cells to cause the flu.  So you can get the "cure", without the disease.  That is the idea behind vaccination.  
  7. There are side effects to the flu shot, but these are very few and mild.  The most common side effect is soreness in the arm where the shot was given.  This usually lasts a few days and does not affect the arm function but will cause aching.  Some people develop mild body aching and a very low grade fever for a few days after the flu shot.  This is not from "a mild case of the flu" but from the body producing the antibodies that are needed to protect us from real influenza.  
  8. Some people may be afraid of getting Guillain Barre disease from the flu vaccine.  Guillain Barre is a disease of the nervous system that causes weakness and paralysis.  GB is a very rare disease in any case and a very small increase in cases (one extra case per 100,000 people vaccinated) was found in 1976 with the swine flu vaccine.  Since that time there has not been convincing evidence to link GB to the flu vaccine.  
  9. Many people think that the flu vaccine is not effective, that is does not afford effective protection against influenza.  The flu vaccine is not perfect and does not protect 100% against influenza.  The closer the strains in the vaccine match the strains that are present in the US during the influenza season, the more protective it will be.  Last year the match was not as good as in some years but this year all 3 viral strains are new and it is hoped that they will be a better match to the virus strains that will be present.  In order to be effective, an individual's immune system must make adequate antibodies in response to the vaccine.  The ability to do so depends on age, general health and state of the immune system.  Because the people for whom flu is most dangerous are often the same people that won't get a good response to vaccination, it's important for healthy people who have contact with those vulnerable populations to get the flu vaccine.  Most therapies available today are not 100% effective, so it is not reasonable to expect the flu vaccine to be perfect.  The important point is that for the vast majority of people, the effect of the vaccine on reducing the chance of getting or giving the flu is far greater than the chance of a side effect.  So it is definitely better than nothing and the best thing we have at the current time.  If there is a simple way to keep yourself healthy, protect the ones you love and make sure that you do not harm patients and at very low risk to you, is there a good reason not to get the flu vaccine?  
  10. Of course, getting the flu shot will not protect someone from getting the common cold or other viruses that are common in the flu season.  If we had vaccines to protect against those other diseases that would be great, but since we do have a vaccine for a common, serious disease-influenza- we should take advantage of it.  
  11. Besides immunization, hand hygiene and covering respiratory secretions (such as sneeze or cough) is important to reduce spread of flu.  Flu can be spread through infected surfaces such as telephones, towels, tissues etc.  If you are sick with any respiratory virus, flu or the "common cold", covering your cough, disposing of tissues and cleaning hands (with soap and water or alcohol rinse) after touching secretions is essential to controlling these contagious diseases.