You’ve heard a lot about the flu vaccine, but is it myth or truth? Get the facts about the flu shot and its role in preventing the spread of disease.
Influenza is not the “stomach flu”—it’s a serious disease that can affect anyone, and though there are treatments to lessen its severity, the flu has no cure. The CDC recommends the flu vaccine as the most effective protection we now have against contracting and spreading influenza. But as of November, only about 39.5 percent of Americans were vaccinated. One reason for the lag in vaccination coverage is the pervasiveness of myths about the flu shot. There’s a lot of information out there that’s misguided, outdated, or simply inaccurate. Not sure what to believe? We’ve delved into the most reliable information we could find and summarized what you need to know about flu vaccines.
It was the early 1930s when the influenza virus itself was first discovered, though the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 had already brought it to horrible prominence (TIME magazine). The first working vaccine was used on soldiers during World War II, developed with the help of Dr. Jonas Salk, who later created the polio vaccine.
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But in 1976, the flu shot suffered a PR setback. A mass-vaccination program, promoted by President Gerald Ford, was meant to ward off a possible pandemic of swine flu. Of the 40 million Americans vaccinated, several hundred developed a severe long-term illness called Guillain-Barre syndrome—an extremely tiny percentage and far fewer than the number debilitated by influenza itself, but enough to scare people. Flu shots nowadays are carefully administrated, with awareness of the possible risks to individuals depending on medical history.
Flu shots help protect us against the influenza virus by using inactivated (inert) flu viruses to prompt the development of antibodies by the immune system. “An annual seasonal flu vaccine (either the flu shot or the nasal-spray flu vaccine) is the best way to reduce the chances that you will get seasonal flu and spread it to others,” says the CDC. Because influenza viruses are constantly changing, each year the vaccine is updated to reflect the most prevalent strains. That’s why it’s important to get a flu shot every year.
“Getting a yearly flu vaccine is extremely important for adults 65 years and older, as well as their caregivers,” says Dr. Lisa Grohskopf, medical officer in CDC’s Influenza Division. “Last flu season was particularly hard on seniors, causing more hospitalizations and deaths than in previous seasons. At this point, flu activity is starting to increase across the country. Everyone 65 years and older and anyone who cares for them should get vaccinated if they haven’t already done so.”
Generally, the CDC recommends getting a flu shot as soon as possible after the vaccine becomes available for that season—usually in the fall. That will give your body enough time to develop antibodies before viruses really start circulating in the population. However, you can still get vaccinated throughout the flu season, which can last as late as May. In fact, flu season doesn’t typically peak until February. As long as flu is circulating, vaccination can provide protection against the flu. And there’s more good news for seniors: Medicare Part B coverage means they can get their annual flu shot free of charge.
We hope our guide to flu shots has helped clarify the history and science behind flu vaccination. Let us know what you think in the comments!
A Place for Mom is one of CDC’s Flu Vaccination Digital Ambassadors. CDC’s Flu Vaccination Digital Ambassador program recognizes online publishers who commit to posting about flu vaccination multiple times throughout the season. The Flu Vaccination Digital Ambassadors are integral to raising awareness about the importance of flu vaccination among the general public as well as individuals at high risk for severe complications from flu.