If the motto “Fear the Flu” were conveyed effectively to the millions in our country each year who skip the clinically proven, readily available, easily affordable, and virtually side effect free flu vaccine, it would dramatically reduce influenza prevalence. It is the duty of the medical community, the media, and the government to fan the public’s fear of the flu and thereby reduce the significant costs, both personal and economic, associated with this largely preventable illness.
More Americans will die this year from the flu than from Ebola. However, if an Ebola vaccine became available today, people would line up to get it because of the widespread public frenzy over Ebola transmission.. An equivalent fear of the realistically more deadly flu does not exist, although more than 36,000 people in the United States die annually from flu related illnesses.1 As a result, the influenza virus continues to flourish.
While crippling illnesses like polio, diphtheria, and measles have been stopped dead in their tracks by preventive vaccines, this is not the case for the flu. At first glance, this may be perplexing considering the availability of an effective annual flu vaccine. However, only 46% of Americans benefit from the vaccine.2 We have grown complacent about the virus, perhaps because the flu quietly languishes our population rather than loudly ravishing it.
Outbreaks like the swine flu scare of 2009 caused temporary concern, but there has been no global hysteria over the flu since 1918. The influenza virus, despite having been around for centuries, has commanded the spotlight only once. This occurred in 1918, when a strain known as Spanish flu, or H1N1, devastated the globe and killed over 50 million people.3 With time, society’s memories of that pandemic have faded. Today, fear has taken a backseat where the flu is concerned, likely because it is so customarily ingrained into popular culture. People know the flu comes and goes every season. Many believe it is a nuisance, but not something to be feared.
If the health dangers associated with the flu are insufficient to generate a movement toward flu vaccination, the economic costs affecting America’s pocketbook should muster alarm. A total of 111,000,000 lost workdays per year caused by the flu translates to a $7 billion loss in productivity. Direct medical costs associated with the flu average $10.4 billion annually, a significantly detrimental amount especially given current financial crises in healthcare systems. Additionally, the total yearly economic burden the influenza virus places on America exceeds $87 billion dollars.4 Of even greater importance than quantifiable monetary losses is the lost potential resulting from 38 million flu-induced school day absences each year.1
Given these personal and economic consequences, why do more than half of all Americans fail to get a flu shot?2 Studies suggest that if just 60% of America’s population were vaccinated annually, the threat of another flu pandemic would be completely extinguished.5 Myths about the flu shot play a significant role in the reason people do not get vaccinated. These misconceptions, however, are easily refuted. It is a myth that the vaccine causes the flu. Influenza shots are made from either viruses that are “inactivated” and non-infectious, or from “recombinant proteins” which do not contain influenza viruses at all.1 Fear of the shot itself is unfounded, as other methods of obtaining the vaccine, such as a nasal spray or an intradermal needle injection, are available. For those concerned about autism based on largely unsubstantiated claims related to the thimerosal preservative, thimerosal-free flu vaccines are available. Finally, there is an egg-free shot for people concerned about having an allergic reaction to the vaccine.1
Together, the absence of any compelling reason to avoid vaccination coupled with the significant costs to society resulting from the flu should encourage the government, media, and the medical community to promote immunization. These parties can do so by instilling a healthy fear of flu in the population much the same way anti-smoking and anti-drug campaigns have done so in past years. Public service announcements graphically displaying ravaged faces of meth users and tar-scarred lungs of chain smokers translate to fear in viewers, which in turn educate and entice action. An anti-smoking television campaign sponsored by the U.S. government in 2013 prompted 1.6 million smokers to begin efforts to quit smoking.6 Surely, reducing flu in our society is an easier challenge than is combating drug or nicotine addiction.
Healthcare delivery systems are at the crux of this effort to increase vaccination rates. Doctors, clinics, and government agencies should provide detailed information regarding the perils of the flu and information about the affordable vaccination. Flu education and vaccines ought to become part of routine health screenings. Flu vaccination should follow the lead of mobile mammography and start a mobile campaign. Insurance companies need to provide their customers with flu-related mortality and morbidity data, and then offer financial incentives to those who vaccinate. Schools nationwide ought to create a healthy dose of flu concern among students by citing facts on how contagious the virus is and follow up by providing flu shots on campus.
Experts believe coverage of a disease positively affects people’s inclination to vaccinate.7 Thus, the media’s potential role in flu prevention must not be ignored. Scare tactics on news networks may seem Machiavellian, but the bottom line is they have the potential to work. Increased vaccination rates will increase population immunity if advocated for properly, reducing our society’s health dangers.
Avoiding the flu must become as instinctual as the fight-or-flight reflex in the face of danger. An effective weapon—one in the form of a vaccine—is already in the arsenal, sharpened and ready to go. Instilling the fear necessary to wage the war remains key to winning the battle against the flu.
1. Center for Disease Control and Prevention Web site. Key Facts About the Seasonal Flu Vaccine. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/keyfacts.htm. Accessed on November 2, 2014.
2. Healthline News Web site. CDC: Now is the Time for Everyone to Get a Flu Shot. Available at: http://www.healthline.com/health-news/everyone-get-a-flu-shot-091814. Accessed on November 15, 2014.
3. The History of Vaccines Web site. Available at: http://www.historyofvaccines.org/content/articles/influenza. Accessed on November 2, 2014.
4. Molinari NA, Ortega-Sanchez IR, Messonnier ML, Thompson WW, Wortley PM, Weintraub E, Bridges CB. The annual impact of seasonal influenza in the US: measuring disease burden and costs. Vaccine. 2007 Jun 28;25(27):5086-96. Epub 2007 Apr 20.
5. Meltzer MI, Cox NJ, Fukuda K. The economic impact of pandemic influenza in the United States: priorities for intervention. Emerg Infect Dis. 1999 Sep-Oct;5(5):659-71.
6. Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids Web site. CDC’s Anti-Smoking Ad Campaign Spurred Over 100,000 Smokers to Quit; Media Campaigns Must be Expanded Nationally and in the States. Available at: http://www.tobaccofreekids.org/press_releases/post/2013_09_09_cdc. Accessed on November 15, 2014.
7. Haifeng Zhang, Jie Zhang, Changsong Zhou, Michael Small, and Binghong Wang. Hub nodes inhibit the outbreak of epidemic under voluntary vaccination. New J. Phys., 12 023015 (11pp) DOI: 10.1088/1367-2630/12/2/023015.