Every year, an estimated 5 to 20 percent of the population gets the flu, and for those that do, it’s never a fun ride. Fever, aches, and debilitating fatigue are the norm, at least for the lucky ones. The not so lucky may become part of the approximately 36,000 deaths or 200,000 hospitalizations that also occur.
Because of these outcomes, as well the numerous days lost at work, we’re consistently reminded to our get flu vaccine. But many people refrain. Some may hold back because of last year’s outcome—the vaccine was a poor match to the circulating virus and many still became sick. Elderly people may have heard about a recent study that calls to question the vaccine’s effectiveness in their population. And others simply want to avoid the painful stick while keeping the twenty odd bucks in their pocket.
But is not getting vaccinated a gamble worth taking? Who should get the flu shot and who should roll the dice?
Unlike other vaccines, the flu vaccine is formulated differently each year, and it’s a bit of a guessing game as to which strains it will contain. The vaccine consists of three flu viruses: two A types and a B type. The B type doesn’t change very much from year to year, but the A type can mutate rapidly. So every year, researchers have to forecast which viruses they think will be present the following season. These forecasts are based on the best scientific evidence, but sometimes aren’t accurate; last year for instance, the flu shot was poorly matched to the virus that ended up being the most prevalent. Some people who received the vaccine still got the flu, although there is evidence that symptoms were milder than had they not received it.
This makes it seem like a bit of a gamble. But a recent study published in Pediatrics found that even during years with a bad vaccine match, the flu shot can protect kids. The researchers estimate that fully vaccinated children were half as likely to get the flu as those who received no vaccine.
Children, the elderly, and people with pre-existing conditions are usually considered high priority groups for the flu vaccines.