Rather than panicking about the single patient to have been diagnosed with Ebola in the US, protect yourself against a virus that kills up to 50,000 Americans every year. It’s the flu, and simply getting the shot dramatically reduces your chances of becoming ill.
More importantly, getting the flu shot helps protect everyone else in your community from the virus as well, including very young children and older people who can’t get the vaccine. This year’s flu is expected to be worse than previous seasons, so acting soon is your best defence.
Why Skipping The Shot Is Potentially Deadly
Getting vaccinated helps protect your whole community from the virus. This is especially important because while healthy young adults probably won’t die from an ordinary strain of flu, the virus can kill older people, young children, and others whose immune systems may not be equipped to fight it off.
During a typical flu season, close to 90% of all deaths from the virus occur in people over 65. Young people are also especially vulnerable to the virus, particularly those younger than six months. In 2006, more than 50,000 Americans died as due to complications from the virus, and an estimated 20,000 children younger than 5 are hospitalized due to the flu every year.
While some groups lack easy access to the vaccine or are ineligible for vaccination — infants are too young to get it and it is less effective in those with compromised immune systems, like certain cancer patients — others simply fail to get their yearly shot. You can help protect the most vulnerable groups by getting vaccinated yourself.
The key principle guiding most vaccinations is herd immunity, the scientifically-proven concept that protecting enough people in any given community reduces the chances that anyone in that community will get sick.
If most people are vaccinated and can’t get sick, widespread disease becomes nearly impossible, as even a rogue sick person is likeliest to come into contact only with people who are vaccinated. That means that, so long as a significant majority of people (75%, for the flu) in any given company or school or town is vaccinated, the chances that lots of people will get sick are slim.
Unfortunately, only about 45% of Americans get the flu shot every year, opening up gaps in the population for the virus to get in and spread. In at least 32 states, the figure is more dismal still — Florida, Idaho, and Wyoming vaccinated less than 39% of their populations against the flu during the 2012-2013 season.
This Flu Season Could Be A Doozy
Another reason to stop dawdling on your vaccination? This flu season is shaping up to be worse than the last.
Because flu season occurs in different time periods around the world, health experts track outbreaks of the virus globally to try and predict how the illness will affect each country before anyone there actually gets sick.
In Australia, where flu season is the opposite of in the US (for Australians, flu season begins in May and ends in October), twice as many cases of the virus were reported this year than last. That means this flu season in the US — October to May — could be a doozy.
How Unvaccinated People Get The Flu
The virus spreads by hitching a ride on infected hands and objects, and in coughs, sneezes, or even gusts of air. The large liquid droplets carried by “ahems” and “achoos” are ideal for carrying the flu, but recent studies suggest that as many as half of all new cases are transmitted via even tinier airborne droplets that can be inhaled.
While you might naturally steer clear of a sneezing colleague, you should also be wary of the coworker who says she’s “not contagious anymore.” An adult who has gotten the flu can still spread the virus for as long as a week after first developing symptoms — and children stay contagious even longer. Others can carry the virus even though they never show signs of illness.
Washing your hands frequently and being sure to cover your coughs are helpful ways to reduce your chances of getting or spreading the virus, but the vaccine is the single best way to protect yourself and those around you.
How The Flu Shot Works
Do not fear: The flu vaccine is short, often painless, and very low-risk.
For the shot, doctors prick your arm with a dead version of the virus. For those averse to needles, most people are also eligible for the nasal spray vaccine, which contains a small amount of weakened live virus. (The spray cannot cause the flu, but it can lead to some mild symptoms, like a runny nose.) The inactive flu in the shot won’t cause any symptoms.
Both the shot and the spray will prime your immune system to recognise the foreign virus. As soon as your body senses the virus’ presence, it starts making antibodies, the special proteins it uses to neutralize hostile invaders. Primed from the dress rehearsal provided by the vaccine, the body knows what to do when the real thing arrives: It launches its practiced attack, killing off the virus before it has a chance to establish a foothold in your body.
The vaccine includes inert viruses from four types, or strains, of the flu that a team of international scientists determines will probably be the most widely-circulating each year. So the shot won’t make you completely immune to all flu viruses, but it will protect you against the worst offenders.
Don’t delay. It takes about two weeks for the vaccine’s full protective effects to take hold, so getting a flu shot as soon as possible is key to protecting yourself — and those around you.
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