Which Do People Fear More? The Flu or Flu Vaccine
Yesterday was the day I had been anxiously anticipating for well over a month. I took my kids to the local senior center to get our flu shots at the county flu vaccination clinic.
While most Americans are worrying themselves sick over Ebola, I’m more concerned about the greater risk of influenza. See, I’m no stranger to the fact that thousands of people die from influenza each year. In fact, I’ve already read about several flu deaths being reported this season, to include a person from South Carolina and a child from North Carolina in just the past week though these deaths won’t get the media attention Ebola does. And while the flu may not be widespread in my local area at this particular moment, it’s just a matter of time. The flu arrives every year like a tornado on the midwestern plains. Sometimes you get a little bit of a warning, but regardless of whether you see it coming, it inevitably hits towns, schools and workplaces, hurting and even in some cases killing those who are not protected from its wrath.
Unfortunately, because I’ve had a child diagnosed with H1N1, met parents who have lost their children, know friends who have lost their neighbors, and have personally known a previously healthy individual who succumbed to influenza in his early 30s, I have a healthy fear of the flu (no pun intended). Yet, it never ceases to amaze me that reasonable and otherwise intelligent people continue to reject flu vaccinations because they are swayed by unfounded myths or the sting of a needle.
Yesterday I realized that while my children understand the importance of flu vaccination, many adults around them still do not.
Here are a few of the surprising things I heard in just one hour of the day:
As I explained to my daughter’s teacher why I was taking her out of class, she mumbled something under her breath about how she would NOT be getting a flu vaccine. It wasn’t appropriate for me to address her fears at that time, or respond with resources that might offer her a new perspective. Instead, I made a mental note to discuss it with her later but I left feeling disappointed that this teacher failed to see the value of the shot – not just in keeping my daughter healthy, but in also reducing the likelihood that she could pass the flu onto her teachers and classmates. Even though my daughter was reluctant to get a needle in her arm, when she has had the flu mist in the past, she took the shot like a champ saying, “I know it’s going to hurt, but I really don’t want to get sick and I don’t want to get anyone else sick either.” Even at nine years old, my daughter is beginning to understand social responsibility and the concept of herd immunity.
I overheard my 16-year-old daughter explaining to her friend that she was leaving school to get her flu shot. “Ouch!” her friend grimaced, to which my daughter responded without hesitation, “Yeah I hate needles, but I don’t want to get the flu. Did you know that a kid already died from flu this year?” To be clear, I did not tell her this, but I was surprised to realize that she was aware of this unfortunate death. Teens often see themselves as invincible, but it’s our parental responsibility to help educate them on the threat of disease and the important role that vaccines play in public health. I’ve shared both The Invisible Threat documentary and the PBS documentary Calling The Shots with my children, and yesterday I realized these films have helped get the message across. Unfortunately, if parents rely on others to teach their children about the risks and benefits of vaccines, they may be mislead by the abundance of misinformation you can find on the internet and end up as young adults or parents who fail to get themselves or their children vaccinated.
Once we were at the clinic I heard the most unbelievable statement of the day. One of the administrators of the senior center walked by my 14-year-old daughter as she was getting a needle in her arm and commented, “Oh my. That is one huge needle. I’ve never seen a needle so big. Oh my that must really hurt.” I honestly couldn’t think of anything that would be more obvious NOT to say at a flu vaccination clinic. What was this woman thinking? Then it occurred to me. She wasn’t thinking at all. She was probably so consumed in her own needle phobia to think about how her comment may upset a teenage patient. I took the opportunity to respond by saying,
“Well, it only hurts for a second but it’s worth it to know we’re doing what we can to prevent flu.” To which I added, “I certainly hope that you’re getting your flu shot as well. I mean, working here with elderly people all day, it would be horrible if you were responsible for getting them sick with influenza. After all, even healthy people can die from the flu.”
Yeah, that may not have been totally appropriate, but I’m a mom after all and I know how to use guilt when I need to!
As I drove the kids back to school, my 13-year-old daughter, who has only ever been to the doctor for well-visits and never misses school for illness turned to me and said, “Yeah I hate shots. But I can’t imagine how I could ever manage in my classes if I had to miss school because I got the flu. I’d probably be out for like a week.”
As I reflect on both the wise and worrisome comments I heard, I’ve realized that some people will avoid the flu vaccines because they are misinformed. In those cases I would suggest they read Tara Haelle’s blog post on Red Wine and Applesauce that thoroughly debunks 33 myths that often keep people from choosing to be vaccinated. But some people don’t get vaccinated because they suffer with needle phobia. For those people I hope to share some good news.
First there is a non-injectable option called the nasal spray flu vaccine. It’s a perfect alternative for anyone afraid of needles because it doesn’t involve one. And while the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recently recommended it as the preferred flu vaccine for children between the ages of 2-8 due to its effectiveness, the vaccine can be administered to most people between the ages of 2-49, with a few exceptions. There are also some promising developments that may help in the future. The first is a device that could be instrumental in reducing the pain of needle injections and works by applying pressure and vibration while the needle is inserted in the skin. According to a new study presented at the ANESTHESIOLOGY™ 2014 annual meeting, study author William McKay, M.D. explained,
“As many as 1 in 10 people experience needle phobia, which may have negative consequences, such as decreasing the rate of vaccinations and blood donation…Our early research suggests that using a device that applies pressure and vibration before the needle stick could help significantly decrease painful sensations by closing the ‘gate’ that sends pain signals to the brain.”
And scientists across the globe are currently working to develop a universal flu vaccine that may one day eliminate the need for people to be re-vaccinated year after year.
There is so much to be hopeful for, and yet so much to still be done to help improve this year’s vaccination rates over last year’s. So let this be a reminder to you.
Have you protected yourself from the flu this season? When you do, be sure to take a #vaxselfie, as Nurses Who Vaccinate encourages us all to do. Then be sure to share it on social media. Or better yet, send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll post it on our sites as well. Let’s show the world how to get it done!