Refusal to take a flu shot

Published Wednesday, February 19, 2014

by C. Nicole Swiner, M.D., Columnist

Why didn’t you get a flu shot this season? I asked this question recently on my Facebook page, and people were surprisingly silent.

This is interesting because, when asked in person, patients are very vocal about why they refuse to get the seasonal vaccine. I’ve heard reasons that vary from “Doesn’t it give you the flu?” to “My Mom/insert any other family member got really sick after she got one” to “I’m healthy, I don’t need one.” I think the most interesting reason is always the one that suspects the government is behind it in some way and involves a conspiracy theory.

Over my seven years of practice, I think I’ve heard them all, coming from a variety of ages, races and backgrounds. Since this particular influenza season has been a severe one for our state, I wanted to delve more into the thoughts behind this issue.

As a doctor, I encourage all of my patients, if safe for them, to get all sorts of vaccinations. I see babies from the newborn stage to adulthood, so I recommend all of the well-child shots and talk to parents about any concerns they may have about them. The same is true for adults to geriatric age. I discuss all vaccinations, their benefits and potential risks. But, for some reason, the refusal of the flu shot is visceral for many people. They are vehemently opposed to it.

Let’s address some of these misconceptions.

First, we are all susceptible, no matter how healthy we are. This season, which started in October, we’ve had 64 deaths from the flu. The season doesn’t end until March or April. The majority of these deaths were between the ages of 25 and 49 years old. They were young, healthy adults.

We can be exposed to influenza at our jobs, church, schools, day cares, grocery stores, gyms or anywhere you come into contact with people. Some people who have the flu early on don’t even appear ill until days after they’ve been exposed.

So just think about that person you may have been sitting next to, talking to or shaking hands with who was infected but wasn’t showing signs yet. This is not to raise fear but awareness, and to educate some of those ignorant theories.

My next “favorite” excuse is the one that proposes the flu vaccine gives one the flu. This is incorrect. The flu shot has a killed and inactive version of the influenza virus. When injected, your body will elicit an immune response as it learns to recognize the virus and is able to fight it off when it comes into contact with it the next time. When we have an immune response, sort of similar to an allergic reaction, our body may have some milder, less dangerous, similar symptoms to that of the flu.

These include, but are not limited to, fever, headache, body aches or rash. The next question is usually “So why put myself through something that feels like the flu in order to prevent the flu?”

So you don’t catch the actual flu infection, which can feel 50 times worse. That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? To many, it doesn’t.

The only excuses I’m willing to accept is if someone is allergic to eggs or has a history of a rare neurologic disorder called Guillain-Barre’ syndrome. Outside of these two reasons, there are no other acceptable excuses for preventing a preventable disease that can lead to serious or deadly complications for yourself and others around you.

So, seriously reconsider this year of all years to vaccinate yourself and your loved ones, particularly those who are of young and old age. Think of someone other than yourself as you can prevent the spread of illness in your community. As always, ask your health- care provider if you ever have any questions.


Dr. C. Nicole Swiner works at Durham Family Medicine, where she treats newborns to elderly patients. She and her colleagues are accepting new patients and can be found

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