The Sunday Poll: Are You Getting Your Flu Shot?

Vast corporate rip-off? Or my civic duty?

 

$29.99 is a small price to pay to avoid the flu. Right?

Flu Shots! Every drugstore offers them. I had my first one last year, not because I asked for it, but because I went for my annual checkup before I spent a month abroad, my doctor urged me to get it before I got on the plane, and it was covered with the preventive care visit. The needle was in there almost before I could open my mouth.  My arm was really sore for a few days.  I didn’t get the flu last year.

Flu Shots! $29.99! Everywhere I go. If I went back to the doctor, I know she’d happily stick me again. But somehow the annual advent of flu shots kicks off a massive internal debate. Do I really need it?

The pros and cons rage back and forth. I’m familiar with many reasons that people avoid flu shots. I’m sure the anti-vaccine crowd will continue to write books and appear on talk shows to scare us away from any vaccine, until America suffers an ensuing large outbreak of whooping cough or measles, and we come back to our senses, having re-witnessed the horrors of these diseases.

Some people fear that the vaccine itself it will infect them with the flu, or that it contains chemicals which will poison them. I have friends who are scientists (as opposed to ragtag arts writers like me), and I asked them all about it. Now I know the dead virus in the vaccine triggers my immune system’s defense without making me sick, and I know that protection from diseases like polio and tetanus far outweighs any ill effects of vaccines (effects which do not include autism).

Flu Shots! $29.99! I do get skeptical of the united front from doctors and the government to spend thirty bucks on a vaccine for an illness that is very, very seldom fatal to otherwise healthy individuals. They’ve got to be in league with the pharmaceutical companies. Our government and health care officials whip up fear about the flu, and big-ass corporate pharma rakes in the profits. Why should I pay up?

On the other hand, it also makes sense that our government would want to do everything it could to prevent a large flu outbreak, which would cost a heck of a lot more than a season of public service announcements. Even without a 1919-type horror, I’m sure that the flu takes a noticeable toll on the country’s productivity each winter, as workers are forced to take sick leave when they catch it. It’s in everyone’s best interest to keep the population healthy as possible, to avoid lost revenue and productivity, and to avoid extra demands on the health-care system.

(Last year I learned that the government, as well as large employers, promotes a new chicken pox vaccine for children not because of concerns over the youngsters’ suffering or mortality, but because of massive lost productivity each year when parents call out of work to care for their pox-stricken kiddies.)

But aside from any fears about the risks of the vaccine, or fears of an evil corporate pharma kingdom controlling the government and my doctor’s office, I wonder if the vaccine is really necessary for me.

Tetanus? Whooping cough? Yeah, go ahead and inject me, especially since if I get pregnant, my whooping cough vaccine will protect my newborn, who isn’t eligible to get the vaccine until he or she is older. Measles? Polio? Diphtheria? I don’t want to risk death or permanent disability from these illnesses, so yes. But the flu?

Unlike many children born before my generation, I won’t get polio or measles. But the flu and I are well acquainted: the days of burning fever, the joints that feel full of hot ground glass, the skull turned to lead, the nose rubbed red from Kleenex. It’s horrid, especially for a girl like me, who begins to get desperate after one solid day at home. I typically go back to work as soon as I can stand for several minutes at a time. A two-week bout of laryngitis usually follows.

But I never died of the flu. Isn’t it just a periodic risk of being human? Why should we treat it like the end of the world? Why are we so terrified of getting sick? Is the flu really too much to bear?

On the other hand, even if I’m healthy and can handle the flu, if I’m vaccinated, that helps to protect any infants I encounter, who can’t get the vaccine themselves, and are more susceptible to the flu’s dangers.  I take care of frail elderly people on a regular basis. Are they better protected if I’m vaccinated? The benefits of vaccination are not just to the individual – when a majority of us are vaccinated, society at large is protected. Could that $29.99 be my civic duty?

But my darn scientist friends have informed me a little too well on some fronts. The fact is, viruses are evolving all the time. Not only are there many different versions of the flu out there – these viruses change all the time, all the better to infect you, my dear. When flu vaccines are developed, manufactured and sold, their makers are essentially predicting which strains of the virus will be most prevalent this year. But they can’t be sure. And getting vaccinated against one flu virus doesn’t guarantee that I won’t be struck with another. So I could end up $30 lighter (plus the sore arm) and still be hating life round about February.

Should I just pay up and get the vaccine? Or should I take my chances?

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8 Comments

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  1. I voted yes, but I keep putting it off. Now, what’s with that?

  2. Hi Alaina,
    the question whether to get the flu shot is something we are all confronted with every fall. There was a time when I opted for a free flu shot offered by my employer (health services). It wasn’t really necessary for my job as I was part of the administration and had very little contact with clients, but since I had elderly people in my immediate family environment I thought it was a reasonable decision.
    What I didn’t consider was the fact that these elderly people I wanted to protect were getting regular flu shots themselves, so I guess my efforts, while well-intentioned, were rather futile and only served the interests of the manufacturers etc.
    I never ever got a flu shot again since then, even though my present employer (university) is also offering flu shots. I think it is reasonable to assume that people who have weak immune systems get the shot themselves because they can’t rely on everybody else getting it for their sake anyway, and from my experience they actually do get it.
    If I sense I am developing some infection I generally try to avoid contaminating people by calling off visits etc, and I can even work from home if necessary (most of the material I work on is digitized and available anywhere).
    I agree with your stance on vaccines whose benefits far outweigh the risks, like polio and tetanus etc. , and I also accept vaccinations required by immigration laws (e.g. yellow fever in some West and Central African countries) for the simple reason that I want to be allowed in at the immigration checkpoint. For travel purposes I can also accept hepatitis and meningitis shots if they are strongly advised for a particular destination, but the list pretty much ends there.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. I agree w/ your travel vaccine assessments. You’re lucky you’re able to stay home when you’re sick. Now that I’m primarily freelance, it’s easier for me stay home when I’m sick, but if I have to miss assignments, I don’t get paid. I have only ever had one job in my life that let me take sick days – i.e., when I was really ill, I didn’t have to choose between getting well and paying the bills. I think the US gov’t could help prevent the flu not just by promoting vaccines. Probably part of the reason so many of us get sick is that half of American workers don’t get any sick days. I know at my old job, any sickness would pass through almost everyone, simply b/c none of us could afford to stay home if we got sick. Less antipathy for workers’ sick days would probably be very beneficial to slowing down flu transmission.

  3. Not allowing people to go on sick leave surely is a perfect way to multiply workplace infections and ultimately hamper productivity – the pressure not to take sick days is increasing significantly in EU, too, but at least we haven’t yet reached a situation where everyone goes to work when we’re ill. Gradually we’ll end up there, too, I’m afraid. It largely depends on who your employer is. Out of mistrust and the desire to maximize profit employers resort to strangely counterproductive measures, but it’s certainly beneficial to the pharmaceutical industry who can provide more vaccines and pills…

    • Yeah, I guess the core sadness to me in this issue is that ultimately, pushing everyone to pay for a vaccine and suffer the needle/potential side effects is more acceptable in our country than fostering a culture where people are able to take care of themselves in the first place, i.e., stay home if they need to and not infect everyone else.

  4. I’m a flu shot skeptic. I have been exposed to just about every flu bug that comes down the pike working in a school for 26 years. Still standing – knock on wood 😉

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