Flu season is here again and Yukon’s public health officials are encouraging residents to protect themselves and others against the illness.
The refrain that “I’m not anti-vaccine but I’m against the flu vaccine” has become common these days, and while there are a number of key differences between the flu shot and the usual regimen of childhood vaccines, some of the same fallacies and misconceptions drive poor public uptake of the flu vaccine.
The most common criticism I hear of the flu vaccine is that it “doesn’t work.” People complain that they were vaccinated but still got sick.
But this doesn’t mean the vaccine doesn’t work. Most of the time when we get sick we have a common cold – which is different from the various strains of influenza that the flu vaccine offers protection against. Unfortunately, there is currently no vaccine against the common cold.
Even if we filter out all the cases of the common cold it is indeed true that you can receive the flu vaccine and still catch the flu. Tackling the flu is a more difficult challenge than, say, controlling the measles or whooping cough. The vaccine wears off, meaning that it has to be received every year. And the existence of multiple strains of the flu requires scientists to make a best guess each year which strain will cause the most problems during the upcoming flu season.
That guesswork has produced mixed results. It has been widely reported in the media that the 2014-2015 flu vaccine was particularly ineffective – fueling skepticism about it. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the vaccine last year was only about 23 per cent effective, and other estimates have the number lower.
But 2014-2015 was just one year. Between 2009 and 2014 the effectiveness of the flu vaccine was between 47 per cent and 60 per cent, meaning it would reduce your chance by getting the flu by about half. Not bad.
We should question the notion that less than perfect effectiveness – be it 23 per cent of 50 per cent – is reason enough not to get the vaccine. The “Nirvana fallacy” or “perfect solution fallacy” is the tendency humans have to reject solutions that are not 100 per cent effective. Few things in life are guaranteed to work – not seatbelts, not bike helmets, and not flu vaccines – and a reduction in our chances of acquiring the flu is still better than no protection at all.
The relative ineffectiveness of the flu vaccine might be more persuasive as an argument if there were a strong argument tipping the other side of the scale. If there were some significant downside or risk to the flu vaccine the less-than-perfect protection it offers might become more important.
But I’ve seen no good evidence of such a downside. As with other vaccines, we hear anecdotes about alleged side effects. But whenever wide-scale studies of the population are undertaken it becomes clear that they are not “side effects” at all, and just coincidences that the law of large numbers predicts will occur.
Most known side effects are minor. Serious allergic reaction to the vaccine are probably the worst side effect associated with the vaccine, but these can typically be treated.
Some of us prefer to rely on natural immunity to fight the flu. If we eat well, get enough sleep and exercise every day we don’t need a vaccine – or so the argument goes. And indeed good health habits go a long way towards fighting the flu, particularly when it comes to minimizing the symptoms once you get sick.
But unfortunately even those with a strong immune system can get the flu and pass it on to those with weaker immune systems. The flu can be serious for small children, the elderly and those with various medical conditions such as cancer or HIV. You or I may get over the flu with a bit of bed rest and some fluids, but our natural immunity offers little assistance to others. Staying home once we have symptoms – while good practice – is no guarantee since we can become infectious before symptoms develop. So getting the flu vaccine is about more than you or I, it has a social aspect as well.
Public health officials will be providing the flu vaccine at various locations throughout the territory during the next month. A list of times and locations can be found by following the links at yukonimmunization.ca. If you miss all of those dates you can always set up an appointment by calling your public health centre.
Public health offers the FluMist version of the vaccine, which is a nasal spray alternative to injection. In addition to not requiring a jab in the arm to get the job done, FluMist doesn’t contain the demonized preservative thimerosal. While all of the epidemiological evidence suggests that thimerosal is expelled from the body in a short period of time and is harmless to humans at the dose contained in the flu vaccine, unconvinced Yukoners have an alternative that doesn’t contain it anyway, making those questions moot.
While there is much debate about how many people are killed by the flu each year, even the low estimates are in the thousands each year. The flu also costs society significantly in hospitalization costs, and lost productivity.
And, for lack of a better word, the flu sucks. So anything that reduces my chances of getting it – even if there are no guarantees – seems like a good idea. And not only for myself, but for those who don’t have the luxury of saying “the flu sucks,” because for them the consequences of getting it are more serious.
Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.