Why You Probably Don't Need a Flu Shot
A lot of you must have noticed by now that every fall there’s a flu
scare—it’s the wrong strain of flu in the vaccination, or it’s
a new, more virulent flu, or this year it was a shortage of the flu vaccine.
The media eats up the scare value and panicky people stand in line for hours
to get their shots.
First, let’s put flu vaccinations in perspective. What’s the worst
that could happen if you get the flu? You could die. However, the chances of
a healthy, middle-aged adult dying from the flu are astronomically small. There
were only 272 flu/pneumonia-related deaths among people ages 5 to 49 between
late 1990 and early 1998. During that same time period, about three times more
people were struck by lightning. Furthermore, a healthy adult who is vaccinated
still has about a 50-50 chance of getting the flu.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) lumps together mortality (death) statistics
for the flu and pneumonia, but even at that, more than 90 percent of flu and
pneumonia-related deaths occur in people over the age of 65. Your risk of dying
from illness related to the flu rises dramatically as you age—but this
is complicated by the fact that most people that age have other underlying
conditions, such as diabetes, heart and circulatory diseases, and significantly
decreased immune function. Even at that, the estimated number of people over
the age of 50 who die from flu-related illness and/or pneumonia each year is
around 58, and over the age of 65 the number is about 915. A flu shot reduces
the risk of getting the flu in the elderly by 10 to 30 percent, depending on
which study you read.
How about kids? Among children in the U.S. age less than one year (the flu
shot is not recommended for children under six months) to four years old, there
were an estimated 38 pneumonia/influenza-caused deaths reported between late
1990 and early 1998. That’s an average of 4.75 deaths a year.
The very young, the very old and those with compromised immune systems, who
supposedly need the flu vaccination the most, are the ones least likely to
be able to mount a strong enough antibody response to fight off the flu. In
other words, the flu shot is least effective in the populations who need it
Now that we can safely assume that your chances of dying of the flu are very
small unless you’re among the frail elderly (and even then the flu shot
protects you only 10 to 30 percent of the time), what’s really at issue
is getting sick. That’s unpleasant and it’s a nuisance. Drink warming herbal teas and soups, stock up on kleenex, and hunker down for a few days. If you want to play the Pollyanna
game and find something good in the flu, according to Philip Incao, M.D. there’s
nothing like a few days of fever to cleanse the body and upgrade and reinvigorate
the immune system.
And by the way, flu season is just getting underway, but so far the CDC reports
a “very low” incidence of flu outbreaks.