Every new year typically brings new warnings from federal health officials about what Americans should do to protect themselves from the flu. Despite the fact that influenza is a serious public health concern — it’s actually on the list of the top 10 killers in the United States — most people don’t think about it as a major issue. Flu season doesn’t provoke nearly the same level of panic as news about potential Ebola cases, for instance, and the majority of American adults don’t get vaccinated against it.
Medical student Sarah Quillin gets a flu vaccination in Chicago CREDIT: JEAN-MARC GIBOUX/AP IMAGES
If you’re among the estimated 60 percent of adults who don’t usually get a flu shot, there are some compelling reasons to change that this year, despite the recent headlines about the fact that the current vaccine is less effective than usual:
1. This year’s vaccine is better than nothing.
There’s been a lot of coverage about how this year’s flu shot is a bad match for the strains of influenza that are currently circulating. Health experts estimate that the vaccine will work about one third of the time. But that doesn’t mean it makes sense to skip it. Doctors say it’s still worth getting your shot. Even if the vaccine doesn’t prevent you from getting the flu, it can make the symptoms less severe and help you recover more quickly than you would have otherwise. That could make a big difference for vulnerable populations like pregnant women, kids, and elderly Americans, who can catch the flu from healthier people.
“In the average year we see effectiveness of the vaccine at 50 to 70 percent, and so it might be a little lower this year,” Dr. Joseph Bresee, who works for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told CBS News this week. “But even if it’s lower it still may provide some protection, which is especially important in people at high risk for severe disease.”
2. More than 20 kids have already died from the flu this season.
At the end of December, the CDC declared that the flu was at epidemic levelsthroughout the country, something that happens virtually every year. But this season appears to be particularly nasty. Six children died of the flu in the last week alone, bringing the total number of deaths among kids up to 21.
Schools across the country are scrambling to keep students healthy as they return from winter break, taking extra precautions like disinfecting their buildings, urging flu shots, and even starting social media campaigns to encourage kids to wash their hands. In Georgia, the ongoing flu outbreak forced an entire school district to close early for the winter holiday. Even if you don’t have kids of your own, you can attempt to make it less likely that you’ll transmit the flu to other children you may come into contact with throughout the winter.
3. Flu season will probably keep getting worse.
Even though the current flu season is well underway, it’s not too late to get a flu shot. Health experts agree that, as long as the virus is still being spread, it’s always a good idea to get the vaccine. According to the CDC, flu season often peaks in January or February, and sometimes lasts all the way into May.
This year specifically, flu season took a turn for the worse just last week, and definitely hasn’t peaked yet. Compared to this time last season, more people are being hospitalized for influenza. And some states like New York and California haven’t yet seen high levels of illness, so CDC experts anticipate a potential spike in flu diagnoses there over the next few weeks. So if you haven’t gotten the vaccine yet, the shot could still make a difference, especially in terms of increasing herd immunity for the entire U.S. population.
4. It won’t cost you anything.
Flu shots are considered to be a standard part of preventative health care — so, thanks to Obamacare, they fall under the category of services that insurers are required to cover without additional cost sharing. The vast majority of people with insurance should be able to get a free flu shot at a provider that falls within their network. You can make an appointment at your doctor’s office, visit your local pharmacy, or make a trip to a retail store like Target, Walmart, or Giant.