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The Flu Vaccine—More Important Than Ever Before

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Every year, I use this Today’s Read space to educate and inform our readers about the importance of getting a flu vaccine. But like everything else in 2020, this year’s flu season feels strangely different and its onset this fall and winter could bring with it some new dangers and challenges.

Several health officials are predicting that the fall convergence of the flu season and a possible second wave (or in some places, a continuation) of COVID-19 might indeed collide creating a “twindemic” of sorts. Health experts are strongly urging Americans to get the flu shot hoping to ward off possible scenarios where people could potentially contract both the flu virus and the coronavirus at the same time.

Here’s what The New York Times wrote about the upcoming flu season, in an article titled Fearing a ‘Twindemic,’ Health Experts Push Urgently for Flu Shots.

“As public health officials look to fall and winter, the specter of a new surge of Covid-19 gives them chills. But there is a scenario they dread even more: a severe flu season, resulting in a ‘twindemic.’ Even a mild flu season could stagger hospitals already coping with Covid-19 cases. And though officials don’t know yet what degree of severity to anticipate this year, they are worried large numbers of people could forgo flu shots, increasing the risk of widespread outbreaks.

The concern about a twindemic is so great that officials around the world are pushing the flu shot even before it becomes available in clinics and doctors’ offices. Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been talking it up, urging corporate leaders to figure out ways to inoculate  employees. The C.D.C. usually purchases 500,000 doses for uninsured adults but this year ordered an additional 9.3 million doses.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has been imploring people to get the flu shot, ‘so that you could at least blunt the effect of one of those two potential respiratory infections.’”

Health agencies push for Americans to get flu shots amid concerns about a "twindemic," a combination of influenza and COVID-19 outbreaks this year.




Why Don’t More People Get Vaccinated?

According to the CDC’s estimates for the 2018-19 season, when only half of all Americans were vaccinated, the vaccine prevented 4.4 million cases of the flu, 58,000 hospitalizations, and 3,500 deaths. That was in a year that the vaccine was only 29 percent effective.

According to a recent article in WebMD, “When the viruses in the vaccine are a good match with what’s circulating, the vaccine can reduce your risk of having the flu by 40 percent to 60 percent. And even when the match isn’t great, being vaccinated before you get the flu can help you avoid having a severe case. Numerous studies have shown that the vaccine cuts your risk of having to go to the hospital—and if you are hospitalized, you’re much less likely to be admitted to the intensive care unit.”

So why don’t more people get vaccinated? A 2019 survey, conducted by Wakefield Research between Nov. 27 and Dec. 9, investigated the impact of myths and misconceptions about the flu among adults ages 25 to 73. When provided with a series of facts about influenza, more than 80 percent of adults overall got at least one fact wrong, and 28 percent got all of them wrong.

Moreover, the results found that certain groups, including Millennials and African Americans, are more susceptible to anti-vaccination rhetoric, while men are more likely than women to forgo vaccination—both for themselves and their children.

Here are some highlights from the study, outlined by the AAFP (American Academy of Family Physicians)

• Millennials were the least likely age group to have been vaccinated, the survey revealed, with 55 percent reporting that they had not received a flu shot this season. Of those, one-third said they did not plan to get vaccinated.

• When asked about the health risks of influenza, Millennials also were the least-informed group, with 86 percent of respondents getting at least one fact wrong, and 31 percent getting all of them wrong. More than 60 percent of millennials who were familiar with the anti-vaccination movement said they agree with some anti-vaccination beliefs, compared to 52 percent of all adults surveyed and 42 percent of Baby Boomers.

• As far as reasons given for not being vaccinated, Millennials were almost twice as likely to say they forgot to get the vaccination compared with older generations. They also were twice as likely to say they didn't have time to get a flu shot compared with Generation X respondents and three times more likely than Baby Boomers to use that excuse.

• Men were more likely to underestimate the dangers of the flu compared with women. More than 20 percent of men reported forgoing a flu shot because they didn't deem the disease serious compared with just 5 percent of women. Similarly, 19 percent of men reported not vaccinating their children for that same reason compared with only 2 percent of women.

• African Americans had the lowest vaccination rate compared with other ethnic groups, with 55 percent of respondents saying they had not yet received a flu shot, and 34 percent saying they did not plan to receive one. When asked about the flu, nearly 90 percent of African Americans got at least one flu fact wrong, and more than one-third got all of the facts wrong.

• Finally, more than 20 percent of parents overall were concerned that their children would get sick as a result of vaccination, 13 percent thought their children didn't need the shot, and 10 percent didn't consider flu to be a serious health risk.

How Soon Should You Get the Flu Vaccine?

Here are the standard suggestions, according to WebMD.

Timing for getting the vaccine: People need to get the vaccine once a year, usually starting in September through the end of the flu season, which can last as late as May. The earlier you get it, the better your protection. Remember, it takes at least two weeks for the full effects of the vaccine to manifest itself.

Who needs it: All adults, unless there's a medical reason not to. The shot is the most common type. The nasal spray version is often been available for healthy adults up to age 49 who aren’t pregnant, but it isn’t always recommended.

There's an egg-free vaccine if you have severe egg allergies. You can also get a shot that uses a small needle and doesn't pierce as deeply. People who have a greater chance of getting the flu, like those over 65, can get high-dose injections that give them better protection.

According to a recent feature from TribLive.com, most medical experts say you should get the vaccine as soon as possible—and certainly by the end of October. Here is the advice from their article titled Experts Weigh in on Best Time to Get a Flu Vaccine:

“With the potential for flu and covid-19 co-occurring, we need everyone to take steps to prevent overrunning our health systems,” said state Department of Health spokesman Nate Wardle. “It’s great to see employers supporting employees to get their flu shots ahead of the ‘flu season’ to keep their staffs safe and healthy.”

A lot of employers are scheduling flu shots for September. But medical experts are saying the timing depends on your age and health status, and some people should wait until October.

“The younger you are, the better your antibody response to the flu vaccination. It seems to last a little longer. The older you are, the briefer the time that your immune system responds,” said Dr. Donald Middleton, vice president for family medicine at UPMC St. Margaret.

For that reason, Middleton said that people who are 65 or older and those with compromised immune systems do better if they’re vaccinated from mid- to late October rather than September.


Flu Vaccinations During COVID-19



CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
Here are a few tips on getting vaccinated during the pandemic from Families Fighting Flu, a national, nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to protecting children, families, and communities against the flu.

Set a date now for when you plan to get you and your family vaccinated.

• Make a backup plan for where you will get vaccinated, e.g., if you are unable to get to your doctor’s office, identify a nearby pharmacy where you can go.

• Ask your trusted healthcare professional which vaccine is best for you and your specific health needs.

• Be sure you and your family wear masks to protect yourself and others when going to a public location to receive vaccinations. While we are certainly living in difficult times, we can work together to ensure that flu activity is controlled using a tried and true method: increasing annual flu vaccination rates.

The flu vaccine won't protect you from coronavirus, but CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta explains why it's more essential than ever to get the shot this year.



Where to Get the Flu Vaccine

You actually have a lot of options, and some of them are free as long as you have health insurance. Here are some places to consider: your doctor’s office, an urgent care center, your workplace, some schools, your local hospital or pharmacy, and chain stores such as Target, Walmart and Kmart.

You can also use the Vaccine Finder offered by the CDC.