It’s that time of year again: the season of Santa and snow and the spice blend that became a punchline. (Opinion-within-an-opinion: it’s a very pleasant spice blend.) It’s also the season of a particular irony, when even those enlightened Americans cursing the anti-vaxxers forgo the flu shot. “I don’t need it,” I’ve heard from plenty of people with the means and the bill of health health necessary to get vaccinated.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, around 45 per cent of American adults got a flu shot last year, and the 55 per cent leftover surely includes at least a few wringing their hands over anti-vaccine pseudoscience and the reemergence of preventable deadly viruses. Reminder: the flu is a deadly virus, too. It’s not some medieval pestilence that we can nowadays treat with a Band-Aid. From October 2018 to May 2019, over 530,000 people were hospitalized and over 36,000 people died from the flu in the United States.
I’m not a medical professional or a paid pharmaceutical lobbyist or a secret government agent planting information for sheeple. In fact, I skipped the flu shot for most of my life. I’m from Florida, one of the bottom-of-the-barrel states regarding flu shot coverage last season, per the CDC. (Florida hits the bottom of other barrels, too, but I digress.) Eventually I moved to New Jersey for a job at Newark Airport, where I managed an airline operation. At monthly terminal meetings, representatives from all parts of the airport contributed updates. When it came to the CDC, the representative usually had one thing to say: “Get your flu shot.” I never listened, and eventually scored my first flu virus in New Jersey, spending several feverish days on the couch watching a marathon of Bobby Dean’s cooking show because I lacked the strength to change the channel.
That was bad, but I eventually learned that much worse things could happen from the flu.
The turning point came in 2016. I became pregnant with my daughter in January, which is nearly peak flu season. Early in my pregnancy, I arrived at the emergency room with several flu symptoms. Upon hearing I was pregnant at the intake desk, they beelined me straight to the doctor. There’s something wildly unsettling about being whisked to the front of the ER line past a handful of ailing individuals, half of whom I assumed carried their severed appendages on ice.
Did you know that the flu is particularly deadly to a pregnant person? Or that the flu may cause birth defects in the gestating child? I didn’t either. Nobody told me before that frightening day, which is why I am telling you now.
Nine months later, I was walking around New York with an infant daughter in November. Flu season again. I wished I could envelop her in a breathable bubble of completely purified air. Did you know that a newborn must be shuttled swiftly to the hospital if his or her temperature rises to a fever? Or that infants are among the most vulnerable to serious complications or death from the flu? Again, now you do.
Yes, I understand that you don’t think you’ll die if you get the flu. But please listen to someone who has been in the shoes of the vulnerable, someone who is mother to a young child: it’s not all about you.
You may not die from the flu, but you may catch the flu and unwittingly pass it on to a person who will. Beyond pregnant women and small children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems are at higher risk of complications or death from the flu. Just like any other vaccine, the flu shot should be part of the responsible citizen’s annual routine in the US.
There is some good news. The CDC reports that last year’s flu shot coverage rates were low — but the rate of vaccination was several percentage points higher than the previous year. Perhaps this year we’ll crack the halfway point.
For the sake of our most vulnerable populations, I strongly encourage you to figure out how to get your flu shot right now. You can even get a seasonally-spiced beverage on the way there. Or not. Unlike the flu shot, that particular topic is up for debate.