A few weeks ago one of my friends went to Facebook with a medical question: should she get a flu shot this year? Apparently her doctor recommended one and she was uncertain. It seemed simple enough, but the firestorm of comments that it created was truly shocking and depressing. In the end, under a barrage of warnings from “it will get you sick” to “preservatives that will kill you in the long run”, she was convinced to arm herself with healthy living, Echinacea, and prayer to avoid the flu as the flu shot was certainly a conspiracy by Big Pharm to steal her money and make her ill.
Why do the vaccines bring out the crazies? Honestly, I need to know. What is it about protecting yourself and your family from communicable diseases that opens the floodgates to every opinion out there? There isn’t enough room in this article to get into vaccines and kids and I’m not interested in climbing that mountain right now, anyway. No, I’m concerned with the massive amounts of misinformation out there about the flu shot, and why going to social media to answer your questions is pretty much the worst idea ever.
First the flu shot. To give you a basic first-grade level understanding, there are several different types of flu vaccines that help protect you against, depending on the vaccine, three to four different types of flu. The flu vaccine injects either dead viruses (shot) or weakened viruses (nasal spray) into your body. Your immune system thinks they’re alive and launches an attack. You might have a mild fever and feel achy for a few days while your body builds up antibodies. And that’s it. So if you get exposed to the flu, you already have those antibodies within you and are less likely to get sick. Learn more about the flu shot here.
Still, the vaccine has a lot of haters, especially among the “crunchier” groups, and man do the opponents of the flu shot come out in droves on social media. I’ve seen everything from the flu shot will get you sick (No, it won’t. The viruses within the shot are incapable of infecting you. If you got sick after being vaccinated you may have caught a different strain or were sick prior to vaccination) to the preservative will harm your body (the preservative in question is thimerosal, that infamous preservative linked to autism in the now debunked Dr. Wakefield study. While thimerosal has been shown to not have any negative effects in children or adults, thimerosal-free vaccines are available.) This vitriol against the flu shot simply isn’t true. I wish instead we had a greater public lambasting of the flu. After all, these are some pretty sobering stats:
- The infamous Spanish Flu of 1918-1919 killed 40 to 50 million people. Half of the world’s population was infected.
- The average deaths from the flu annually is between 23,000-36,000 people. The 2003-2004 season was considered especially severe, with 48,614 deaths.
- The 2013-2014 flu season saw 108 pediatric flu deaths. The season before saw 171 deaths. 90% of those deaths occurred in children who were not vaccinated.
- Children younger than 6 months cannot receive the flu shot. They rely on herd immunity for protection. Children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems are most likely to get the flu.
- Enterovirus 68 has caused a huge concern among parents. The flu shot won’t prevent Enterovirus 68, but it can help prevent a double infection. This is especially important for children with breathing issues.
- As of the date of this writing, deaths from Ebola are 4,033. (the above stats are sourced here)
Social media is a powerful tool for spreading information, and it can have lasting impacts on the world. In 2011 during Arab Spring, Facebook and Twitter helped to bring down dictators that had ruled for decades, just by giving people with similar beliefs an outlet to express once-silenced idea. Opinions may seem trivial, but they can have a big impact. In the case above, it was enough to push a person away from something her doctor recommended. Think about that for a moment. Facebook commentary from people in random walks of life, most without medical degrees or degrees in virology, were able to convince this person to ignore her doctor’s advice simple by spreading misinformation and writing IN CAPS.
If you have a question about the flu shot, get informed. Get informed by your doctor, check out reputable websites, read statistics on the flu. Social media is awesome, but when it comes to medical advice, it just doesn’t stack up.