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Flu outbreak: Why are so many not getting vaccinated?

Flu vaccine vials.jpg

Vials of flu vaccine are displayed at Philly Flu Shots.AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Two words are at the top of most American’s minds this winter: flu season.

According to the most recent weekly flu advisory from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. is experiencing a particularly nasty flu season this year, with 29 states reporting high levels of “influenza-like illness.”

More specifically, the proportion of people visiting doctors and physicians for flu-like symptoms has climbed from 2.8 percent to 5.6 percent in just four weeks – compared to the peak rate of 2.2 percent for the 2011 – 2012 season.

The virus causing the most problems: A particular strain of type A influenza called H3N2 has been the most predominantly reported this year.  Luckily, this year’s flu vaccine is very well matched to H3N2, which has been historically associated with more severe illness.  

And yet, many people still don’t get the flu shot.

The CDC recommends everyone who is over the age of 6 months get a flu vaccine.  The people most at risk for developing complications from the flu include people over the age of 65, pregnant women, and those with asthma, emphysema and chronic lung disease. However, the majority of Americans do not get the flu shot each year – with only 46 percent getting the vaccine by the end of March 2012.  And, the success rates are fairly positive –  flu shots were shown to be 67 percent effective in preventing the flu.

So why do so many people skip getting the vaccine?  According to one doctor, people do not actively reject the vaccine.  Instead they are merely unsure of whether or not they really need it.

Myths vs. facts

“There’s a growing problem called ‘vaccine hesitancy,’” Dr. Frank Esper, a viral respiratory disease expert at UH Case Medical Center in Ohio, told FoxNews.com.  “They’re not truly against getting the shot.  But, with all these people online saying, ‘Watch out for this, be careful about that,’ – they’re hesitant to receive the flu vaccine, and then they never get it done.”

According to Esper, with numerous websites, blogs, and podcasts perpetuating false information about the flu vaccine online, it’s easy for people to doubt the vaccine’s safety or believe it was not tested accurately.  Many fear the vaccine will cause adverse side effects, which is an unrealistic fear, Esper said.

“There were certain vaccines in the past that did cause problems,” Esper said, alluding to a 1976 vaccine that caused Guillian-Barre syndrome (a neurologic disorder) in a small amount of people.

“It happens once, and people start saying how the [vaccine can cause severe problems].  But all these vaccines that we are producing in the U.S have been tested for this problem, and all sorts of other problems and have been well proven to be safe and effective,” Esper added.

Apart from the hesitancy surrounding the flu vaccine, there are also a number of propagated myths associated with the shot.  The biggest one: You can get the flu from getting the flu shot.  

Because the flu vaccine is developed utilizing parts of the influenza virus, many people believe the virus in the vaccine can ultimately make them sick. But Esper laid that myth to rest.

“The flu shot has absolutely no live virus in there,” Esper said.  “It’s a bunch of pieces and parts.  Think of it as if I take the flu, chop it up into little bits and put those bits into the shot.  You cannot get the flu from the shot because it doesn’t contain all the parts of the flu virus.”

To emphasize his point, Esper noted a person cannot get the flu from the flu shot, “no more than you can get three tires and a carburetor and drive a car.”

However, just because a person does get the flu vaccine doesn’t mean he or she won’t still get sick.  However, many people can mistake flu-like symptoms for the flu virus.  Esper noted there are many different viruses capable of causing disease, so people shouldn’t necessarily assume that if they are sneezing and coughing, they caught the flu virus.

Another myth people have is they think they cannot get the flu.  People who haven’t had the flu in years’ past think they are somehow immune to the virus – a mind set that is potentially unsafe for not only themselves, but others around them.

“The answer to that is, ‘Well you may not have gotten sickly,’” Esper said. “Just like the flu can cause really bad disease, you can actually just have a little bit of a runny nose and nothing else – and that’s still the flu.  It’s still something you caught and you can spread to others.”

‘Stopping the spread of the virus’

Overall, Esper maintained there is a degree of apathy when it comes to the flu.

“I think that people are unimpressed with the seriousness of flu,” Esper said. “We have 5 to 10 percent of people who get infected with this virus each year, but not necessarily 5 to 10 percent of people are dying.  But that’s not true at all.  Flu is the number one cause of infectious disease death. “

Every year, anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 people die from flu-associated illnesses, Esper added.

While there are a small amount of people who should not get vaccinated against the flu – such as those with severe egg allergies, people allergic to the shot or infants under the age of 6 – these individuals only make up a small portion of the population.  According to Esper, there is no reason the vast majority of the population shouldn’t get vaccinated.

“Every time you vaccinate yourself, you’re not just protecting yourself, but you’re protecting everyone you know – including individuals who are too young, have asthma, are pregnant, etc.,” Esper said. “You get vaccinated, and you are ultimately stopping the spread of the virus.”