The flu shot gets a bad rap. Maybe not as bad as this bad rap, but a bad rap nonetheless. And for the most part, I can understand why it got it. Influenza is a notoriously hard virus to immunize against. There are countless strains, and antigenic shift and drift make it so that a new vaccine has to be produced each year, targeting the particular strains that are expected to be circulating in the upcoming season. These predictions can be variable, meaning some years you get a pretty good match, and others, not so good.
Nonetheless, on average, the flu vaccine is going to provide 50% or so protection for healthy adults. Now, I can hear it already. Someone right now is saying “Well, I haven’t gotten a flu shot in X number of years, and I’ve never gotten the flu.” Sure! I don’t doubt it. According to a 2007 analysis, the average healthy adult has around a seven percent chance of getting influenza any given year. So mathematically speaking, whoopie. It’s not hard to go quite a number of years without influenza. But those of us who are immunized every year are going to go far longer without getting infected. I know anecdotes aren't the most meaningful things when it comes to a vaccine, but I have to say - I’m a pediatrician who gets my shot every year. I’m directly exposed to influenza on a near daily basis during flu season, and I have yet to contract influenza.
Anyway, my point is that although the flu vaccine works, it’s understandable why some adults think it’s no big deal to skip. But as a pediatrician, I’m going to make the case that influenza vaccines are extremely important in kids, particularly those in grade school and daycares. And that case has three main points.
First, kids get and spread a lot more flu. Unlike the average healthy adult, the average grade-school or daycare kiddo has around a 20% chance of getting influenza any given year (per the same source as above). Kids are just packed closer together in schools for more of the day than most of us are. And they can be… less than hygienic.
Second, flu vaccines save kids’ lives. There are over a hundred or pediatric deaths per year in the United States on average, and the vast majority of those are in children who were not immunized. A recent study of pediatric influenza deaths found that the vaccine was 65% effective in preventing influenza deaths in children. And there are countless other studies showing better outcomes in the immunized, including decreased pediatric intensive care hospitalizations. They also are effective in children under two (despite claims to the contrary that circulate on less fact-based websites).
Finally, immunizing children has been shown to reduce influenza and complications in the elderly. A number of studies including this one, this one, and this review of the effect of mandatory influenza vaccines for school in Japan, found decreases in influenza disease and complications in older populations, particularly the elderly - the age group that has a high rate of complications, but in whom the flu shot is the least effective. So if you want to protect grandma, make sure she gets her shot, but also make sure her grandkids are immunized.
As someone who will never forget coding young children who died of influenza during my pediatric rotations in the PICU, I go to bat for getting kids immunized against flu, and you should too. Read more about this year's flu vaccine here, check out the TL;DR video below, and if you haven’t already gotten your family immunized, get the job done!