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Here's why so few people get flu shots

Flu_Shot_Pic.jpg
Lance McCord
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Flickr, http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

Everyone is freaking out about Ebola right now, even though health experts say there is next to no chance of a widespread American outbreak.

But there will be a different outbreak this year that kills children, puts thousands of adults in the hospital, and sickens 10% of our population: the flu.

Yet the Centers for Disease Control says less than half of all Americans actually get the flu shot, even though it’s safer, cheaper and more accessible than ever before.

So we wondered: why not?

That’s what prompted Michigan Radio to run two extremely unscientific studies.

Man, a lot of people just do NOT like the flu shot

First, we asked folks on Facebook and Twitter.

From 120 or so responses from people who are generally pro-vaccine, but distrust (or plain old don’t like) the flu shot, most of the reasons shared fell under three general categories:

1)      The flu shot can actually make you sick.

2)      It just doesn’t work that well.

3)      I’m doing great without it, thanks. My immune system is pretty good.   

Next we went out and randomly talked to people in the parking lot of a grocery store, where shoppers can get a flu shot in about 7 minutes for $25.

Clara was putting her groceries in the trunk of her car with her two year old daughter, Willa, in the cart seat.

Clara says she’s a nurse, so she’s required to get the flu shot for her job.

But she doesn’t want Willa to get it.

"I guess I don't see that the risks so much outweigh the benefits for her. I probably wouldn't get one myself if it wasn't required for my job."

"I don’t know,” she says thoughtfully. "I guess I don't see that the risks so much outweigh the benefits for her. I probably wouldn't get one myself if it wasn't required for my job. She's vaccinated for other things, just not, I don't know, the flu shot every year."

Clara is not alone.

The Centers for Disease Control says less than half of all Americans get flu shots, even though it lands roughly 20,000 little kids in the hospital each year.

Last year, 3 Michigan kids died from flu complications.

The year before, it was 7.

The flu shot can NOT make you sick

Dr. Arnold Monto is a professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health.

In flu circles, he’s a pretty big deal. You could argue that nobody else knows the flu, and the flu vaccine, like he does. Although he’ll modestly brush that suggestion off.

"Nowadays, this inactivated vaccine is actually purified. The virus cannot reproduce itself. It cannot make you sick."

“I think there are a few other people who could make that claim!” he laughs. “But I have been studying the flu for a very long while.”

So why does he think so many people aren’t motivated or confident enough in the flu shot to get it?

"It's hard to know!” Monto says. “Because it's a vaccine that's been around for a long period of time, with a very good safety record. If there were problems with it, we'd know about it."

He says the most common misconception about the flu shot is that it can make you sick.  

"Nowadays, this inactivated vaccine is actually purified."

Monto says in the old days, extraneous parts of the virus could be in the vaccine and give you a fever for a day.

Not anymore. The shot cannot actually make you sick, says Monto.

"The virus cannot reproduce itself,” though your arm can feel a little sore after getting the shot.

And Monto says plenty of researchers are trying to figure out how to make the flu shot even more effective. Right now, it’s about 60% effective, but there’s a lot of hesitation to rush any new shot out on the market, since the bar for safety is so high.

Okay but…do people really NEED the flu shot?

Monto admits, if you're a healthy adult, you're probably only going to get the flu once every 10 years.

Even then, it’s probably just a couple of miserable days in bed.

"I didn't see the point in getting a flu shot," says Andrew Maynard, a professor and the director of the University of Michigan’s Risk Science Center.

Yes, the man is a public health expert. But until last year, he had never gotten a flu shot.

It just wasn't convenient, he says. Or maybe it’s his British distaste for medicine.

Whatever the case, it wasn't until he was actually making a video about the flu shot that he felt like, "Hey, I should probably get one of these."

And it’s a good thing, since he believes there’s an ethical argument to be made for the flu shot.

"The more people that get shots, the safer the group will be. Especially those kids that haven't got shots, they're the one who are really vulnerable. So this is really a social duty."

"The more people that get shots, the safer the group will be,” says Maynard. "Especially those kids that haven't got shots, they're the ones who are really vulnerable. So this is really a social duty."

But Maynard says our brains are just not very good at dealing with risk.

For one thing, when a risk is familiar - like the flu - we're less afraid of it. While something like ebola, that's new and seems out of our control, makes us far more concerned.

Maynard says part of that is evolution's fault: we're plenty motivated when a tiger is chasing us...but when there's a slim chance that we could maybe get the flu and maybe pass that on to a kid or an elderly person, who maybe will end up in the hospital?

"That doesn't make sense on an emotional level,” he says. “So at the end of the day, we just have to take the plunge, and we just have to trust somebody that this is going to be good for us."

Still, public health experts agree that until flu shots are good for years, rather than something you have to get every 12 months, we’re just never going to get everybody to get that shot.

Meanwhile, there are a ton of flu shot myths we didn't cover here, but if you're curious (or you just want to have a good comeback when the guy in the cubicle next to yours is like, "oh I don't need a flu shot, I never get them,") there's a great rundown here. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health and the COVID-19 pandemic.