Although vaccination against influenza can protect people from illness and help prevent the spread of flu, many Americans say they and their children won’t be getting a shot this coming season, new surveys reveal.
Despite the attention surrounding last year’s outbreak of H1N1 flu, 43 percent of Americans say they will not be getting the vaccine this fall, according to a survey from the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID).
Another survey from the same group found a third of American mothers saying they have no plans to get a flu shot for their children.
Those decisions could come back to haunt Americans, experts said.
“Flu is serious. Every year millions of people get sick; more than 200,000 people are hospitalized and thousands of people die from influenza,” Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a Thursday morning press conference. In keeping with CDC guidelines, “everyone over the age of 6 months should get a flu shot,” he said.
Flu vaccination remains the best way to protect yourself against the illness, Frieden added.
“There is plenty of vaccine available,” he said. “This year we think that the three strains of influenza in the flu vaccine are going to be excellent matches with the flu that’s circulating.”
This year’s shot contains vaccine against the H1N1 pandemic flu that caused a major outbreak in the last flu season, Frieden noted.
“More than 119 million doses [of flu vaccine] have already been distributed in the United States. That’s more than 30 million more doses than were distributed by this time last year,” Dr. Daniel Jernigan, Deputy Director of CDC’s Influenza Division, said during the press conference.
However, as important as flu vaccine is, many people still don’t get vaccinated.
Flu expert Dr. Marc Siegel noted that many people who opt not to get a flu shot are falling prey to myths about the vaccine. “It’s all because of this nonsense that’s been circulating that somehow the flu shot is dangerous,” he said. “The fear of the vaccine outweighs the fear of the disease and that’s a huge mistake, because the disease is more dangerous than the vaccine.”
In addition, children should be vaccinated not only so they won’t get the flu, but so they can’t spread it, Siegel, an associate professor of medicine at New York University, said. “Children don’t have any immunity. They are super-spreaders of the flu,” he explained.
According to the NFID telephone survey of more than 1,000 adults, conducted in late August, one big factor in deciding to get vaccinated is a doctor’s recommendation. In addition, the desire to protect family members and not having to be laid up for a week were also reasons cited by most people who planned on getting the shot, the survey found.
In addition, 77 percent of Americans are aware that new recommendations support most people getting a flu shot and are planning to get vaccinated. And awareness of the vaccine’s effectiveness does seem to boost acceptance, the survey found.
Among mothers, 80 percent said they had not changed their attitude about flu vaccine since last year’s H1N1 scare and 65 percent do plan to have their children vaccinated. However, 33 percent don’t plan on vaccinating their children, while 2 percent are undecided, according to the survey. The survey was conducted in mid-August and involved more than 600 mothers of children aged 6 to 18.
Among the 43 percent of Americans who don’t plan on being vaccinated misconceptions — and what the researchers call “magical thinking” — were cited as reasons for not getting a shot. These include mistaken beliefs that there are other ways to protect yourself from flu (71 percent), or the belief that they are healthy and the flu “doesn’t worry them” (69 percent).
About half of those who are balking at getting the shot worry that the vaccine may be harmful, while 62 percent believe that the vaccine actually gives you the flu (it doesn’t) or side effects. Forty-eight percent don’t believe the vaccine will match the flu that is circulating and so won’t be effective.
Other misconceptions abound: According to the survey, 62 percent of all Americans mistakenly think the vaccine protects against just one strain of flu, and 34 percent think hand-washing is as effective as the vaccine in preventing influenza.
“The idea that you are not going to spread the flu by washing your hands has never been proven,” Siegal noted.
The story is different for those folks charged with advising people on flu: doctors.
In a separate NFID online survey of 400 physicians, conducted in mid-September, an overwhelming 90 percent said they planned to get vaccinated. Three percent remained uncertain and less than 2 percent of doctors said they would not get vaccinated.
In addition, most doctors recommend flu shots to their families, friends and patients, the survey found.
According to NFID, each year flu causes more than 200,000 hospitalizations and between 3,330 and 49,000 deaths, depending on the severity of circulating strains.