Like millions of other Americans, JoJo O’Neal chose not to get the flu vaccine last year.
“I was dead set against getting a flu shot. And then I developed the flu. I’m over 50 and I have asthma, so it really took me off my game,” said O’Neal, a 54-year-old radio personality from Orlando, Florida.
She also passed on the flu to her sister, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
“This was really scary not only for myself with my asthma, but also for my sister, who has a chronic lung condition. She also passed the flu on to her daughter,” O’Neal said.
With flu-related deaths already being reported this year, health officials are reminding people that the flu vaccine remains the best protection — not just for yourself, but also for those around you.
“Even if you are young and healthy and might be able to survive the flu, there is the risk of transmission to a friend, family member, or other loved one who might not tolerate the flu as well,” said Dr. MeiLan Han, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan Health System and director of the Michigan Airways Program.
Nicole Basta, assistant professor in the school of public health at the University of Minnesota, says that higher vaccination rates protect both people getting the flu shot and those around them.
“When we each get vaccinated, we boost our own immunity and reduce our own risk of getting the flu,” Basta said. “But just as importantly, we reduce the risk to our families, friends, and our communities by blocking the spread of the flu.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that most Americans 6 months and older get an annual flu vaccine.
CDC data shows that during last flu season, 37.1 percent of American adults got vaccinated against the flu. This is down 6.2 percent from the previous season and lower than the previous seven seasons.
This decrease contributed to one of the deadliest flu seasons in decades.
The CDC estimates influenza killed more than 79,000 Americans during the 2017-18 flu season, hospitalized 959,000, and infected 48.8 million.
Ninety percent of deaths and 70 percent of hospitalizations occurred in people ages 65 and older.
But even younger adults were affected. “An estimated 10,300 deaths occurred among working age adults (aged 18–64 years), an age group that often has low influenza vaccination,” the CDC reported.
Health officials also reported 183 flu-related deaths among children, although the CDC estimates the actual number of deaths was more than 600.
The CDC estimates 80 percent of child deaths occurred among unvaccinated children.
Several groups have a higher risk for flu-related complications: children under 5, adults over 65, pregnant women, and American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Chronic medical conditions also put people at risk, including lung disease, heart disease, diabetes, and weakened immune systems.
Millions of people have these conditions, including an estimated 2.7 percent of adults with compromised immune systems due to HIV, treatment for autoimmune diseases, and using immune-suppressing medications after organ transplant.
“These are the people that may ultimately get hospitalized,” Han said. “We’ve already had the death of a young child this year.”
A child died in Florida during the first week of October. They hadn’t received a flu vaccination, according to the state’s department of health.
Many misconceptions about the flu vaccine linger.
One is that the flu vaccine can give you the flu. It can’t.
“You may have a few days after you get your flu shot where you perhaps aren’t feeling 100 percent,” Han said. “But it’s really nothing compared to the severity of illness that can occur with influenza.”
Another is related to the vaccine’s effectiveness.
The flu vaccine is made each year based on scientists’ predictions of which influenza virus strains will be most problematic in the United States.
Last season’s flu vaccine turned out to be only 40 percent effective.
“The flu vaccine is not perfect,” Basta said. “But it has been shown to be one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of influenza, and it is far better than doing nothing.”
The flu vaccine is available at doctors’ offices, health clinics, and some pharmacies and other stores. VaccineFinder.org offers a searchable database of vaccination locations.
The American Lung Association’s “GetMyShot” campaign, which Han and O’Neal are both spokespersons for, has resources aimed at people ages 50 and older about the dangers of the flu and the importance of vaccination.
Han points out that some vaccines have been shown to work better in older adults. If you have questions about which flu vaccine is right for you, talk to your healthcare provider.
And think of those around you.
“I encourage people, even if they don’t necessarily want to get a flu shot for themselves, to do it for others, to do it for those they love and those who are in their circle,” O’Neal said.