While the flu is no picnic for anyone, it can be especially risky and sometimes deadly for young children. But a new survey suggests many people still avoid the flu vaccine because of misconceptions about how it works, including that the vaccine actually can give you the flu.
The survey was conducted by Orlando Health, one of the largest private, not-for-profit hospital networks in the US state of Florida. They polled more than 2,000 people, including 700 people with children under the age of 18. The volunteers were asked about common beliefs related to the flu vaccine.
On the positive side of things, 68 per cent of parents believed that the flu vaccine was the best way to prevent their children from getting the flu. But 53 per cent also believed wrongly that the flu vaccine could cause the flu, and 34 per cent actually believed the vaccine would not work at all. And despite decades of efforts to convince people otherwise, a stunning 28 per cent of parents said they believed the flu vaccine could cause autism, while a similar percentage also said that vaccinations were part of a conspiracy.
“That was the most shocking thing that came up,” Jean Moorjani, a paediatrician at Orlando Health’s Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, told Gizmodo. “Because we know for certain that vaccines don’t cause autism.”
The survey has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal. But other studies have shown that people frequently express scepticism of vaccines or believe myths surrounding them. And far too many people do not get vaccinated for influenza even when the flu jab is readily available, despite it being recommended for everyone over the age of six months.
Moorjani herself has encountered these sort of misconceptions in her practice.
“One of the things we always hear is: ‘Well, I don’t want to get the flu shot because one time I got the flu shot, I got sick.’ But actually, it’s impossible to get the flu from the vaccine shot because it’s made from the dead parts of the virus,” Moorjani said. “And sometimes, it’s possible the person might have just gotten sick from one of the many other common cold viruses that are around during that time of the season.”
Other times, the vaccine might not seem to work because you were exposed to the virus in the brief two-week window before the vaccine kicks in (“It’s why I tell my patients to get the shot before Halloween,” Moorjani noted.). The vaccine’s effectiveness can range, depending on the strains of flu circulating and how well doctors were able to match the vaccine strains to the wild strains in the air, but even when the shot doesn’t stop you from getting the flu completely, we know it can reduce the severity and length of symptoms.
And to be perfectly blunt, the vaccine, imperfect as it is, saves lives. During America's last flu season, which was one of the worst to hit the US in decades, 180 children died from the flu. And in 80 per cent of the deaths, the children had been unvaccinated.
For Moorjani, the take-home message is simple.
“The flu is not just a cold. It can lead to serious complications like pneumonia or sepsis,” she said. “And because we as health care providers have no idea of knowing who is going to get very sick from the flu, that’s why we tell everyone to get the shot to protect themselves and their families.”