By Dr. Mary T. Bassett
A few days ago, I overheard a woman in Brooklyn saying proudly that she and her two children have never gotten the flu shot, and have never gotten sick. Her statement – the equivalent of saying that you will never use a seat belt, because you have never gotten into a car accident – concerned me. Unfortunately, despite tremendous efforts and progress by health care providers and public health authorities in making the flu vaccine available and accessible, her posture is not a rarity.
The City’s Health Department data show that only 44 percent of New Yorkers 18 and older received a flu shot last year, and one-third of the most at-risk New Yorkers – those younger than 5 and older than age 65 – remain unprotected. While influenza (the virus that causes flu) may affect anyone, we know that it is affecting people of color at higher rates. That could be due to the significant disparities in vaccination rates between Black New Yorkers aged 65 and older as compared to Whites and Latinos aged 65 and older.
Not getting vaccinated leaves you at risk for the painful and potentially fatal symptoms of influenza. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on average, there are over 200,000 influenza-related hospitalizations annually in the United States. In a bad flu season, that number could exceed 400,000.
Some cases are fatal. In 2014, 2,220 New Yorkers died from influenza and pneumonia (a potential complication of the flu). About 90% of influenza-related deaths are in people over 65 years of age.
While the statistics are alarming, and the data demonstrate the benefits of receiving a flu shot, misperceptions around the vaccine persist and act as barriers to keep people healthy.
Many people still believe, for example, that taking the flu vaccine will make them sick, that it is unsafe to get, or that it doesn’t substantially protect against the virus. These are myths. The vaccine does not make you sick, and it is very safe. Generally, there can be some soreness at the injection site, but many don’t even experience that. As for protection, the vaccine includes protection from a number of different influenza strains, which will confer protection and reduce the risk of complications even if you contract the virus.
Clearly, we have more work to do to ensure that all New Yorkers know that the flu vaccine is not only the surest way to avoid getting sick, it is also the best way to protect others who are at risk for complications.
Everyone 6 months and older should get the flu vaccine every year. The flu vaccine is especially important for those most likely to get a severe influenza illness, including children younger than age 5 and adults aged 65 years and older, pregnant women, and people with underlying medical conditions, such as lung or heart disease and diabetes.
Finding the flu vaccine has never been easier. First, check with your health care provider. The vaccine is also available for adults at most chain drugstores, like Duane Reade, Rite Aid, and CVS. You can also use the Health Department’s flu shot locator to find a place near your home, text the word “flu” to 877877, or call 311. In most cases, the shot is free or at a low cost.
Getting vaccinated is not only a healthy decision, it is a responsible one, too. Join us in the effort to ensure that everyone gets smart about the flu and proudly say #GotMyFluShot!
Bassett is the City’s Health Commissioner