Mixed reactions over flu shots

With flu season in full swing, it is that time of year where human populations are encouraged to get flu vaccinations to combat influenza and other viruses.

UW Health Services offered flu shots from Jan. 9-10, in an attempt to protect students and staff, as well as community members. Some students had heard about the walk-in vaccinations going on at Health Services, some had not, and others received vaccinations off-campus. Some admitted to never having a flu shot at all.

“I haven’t been vaccinated in three years,” said geography and aviation student Henderson Li, who said he hadn’t heard of the on-campus vaccinations. “I just felt like the flu was never a big deal I guess, I never really thought getting the shot was necessary.”

Some have trypanophobia, a fear of needles, like Elisha Kumari from geography and environmental management, who also said she hadn’t heard of the on-campus vaccinations, but had received them in the past.

“I usually do, but I haven’t got the flu shot in like two years,” she said. “My mom tells me to get it every year; it’s just out of laziness, and I don’t want to get a needle.”

Or perhaps they have a history of not taking vaccinations. Hosam Serry, also from geography and aviation, said his family has never experienced flu-related symptoms, so he has never felt the need to get vaccinated. In other words, if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.

“I haven’t heard of it,” he said. “I think I’ve had it once, when I was younger. I never bothered afterwards since I’ve never got sick from it. I think our family has a strong immunity to it, so I feel I also share the same genetics, so I wouldn’t have a problem with that.”

UW Prof Brian Dixon researches vaccination and immune systems in fish populations, but says his knowledge regarding flu shots is based on common sense. If someone who is vaccinated comes in contact with a virus, they will have a better chance in combating the virus than someone who may not have been vaccinated.

“Flu shots are very effective,” he said. “If you get the flu shot, and the strain of bacteria, or virus that year matches it, you will still get a little sickness for a day or two, and you will recover. If you haven’t had a flu shot, and you’ve never encountered that virus before, it takes four days for your anti-body response to kick in, and it doesn’t peak until a week or two later, so you’ll be sick for several days.”

Dixon said that this difference between the personal health of individuals is what can contribute to the health of the population. How long someone takes to combat a virus could be long enough to pass the virus to someone else, and so on.

“The whole dynamics of it is what we call ‘herd immunity’,” he said. “In order for it to work you need roughly 85 per cent of the population vaccinated.”

In other words, if the majority of a population gets vaccinated, it will help defend those who are at risk, like a baby for example, by fending off the virus. A virus usually impacts children under 10, or those over the ages of 70. Dixon points out that since this season’s flu scare is the H1N1 virus, and that people in between the ages of 20-50, including several reported cases in Alberta, are being affected, not being vaccinated may cause a problem.

“In Alberta, 10 people have died so far this year from the H1N1 strain of flu, and they’re all between the age of 20 and 50, so it affects normally young, healthy people, and that’s a real problem.”

Dixon also adds that it’s not about you. Getting vaccinated is to achieve healthy populations, so you are not only protecting yourself, but protecting the rest of society as well.

“Generally you are not going to get sick, but it’s about your nephews, your nieces, [and] your grandparents, that’s who you are protecting, really. It’s a social obligation.”

Even though getting vaccinated is viewed as a “social obligation,” the public’s perspective can indicate otherwise. Controversy regarding side effects, and additives related to flu vaccines can also turn people away from getting their flu shot. Dixon said undiagnosed allergies, as well as coincidence, is what start rumors, or influences public perspective not to get vaccinated. He also said that since a large part of our society has been lucky enough not to experience certain outbreaks, such as measles or mumps, we have little information to prove to society that vaccinations can indeed prevent them.

“The problem is, no one’s seen cases of measles, or mumps, and they forget that the adverse effects of getting the disease are a lot more frequent, or damaging than getting vaccinated.”

Another controversy around flu shots is the additives that are put into the vaccine, such as the mercury-based preservative, thimerosal, which Dixon says is harmless, but again, public perception has led to it being removed.

“It really wasn’t very toxic, but because of the publicity around it they’ve stopped putting it in, so they don’t even use that preservative anymore.”

Public perspective indicates that some people are turned off by the preservatives, or other additives put into vaccines, and Lannie Butler from Health Services confirms that people want to know what’s inside the vaccine, even if it’s a little bit of mercury.

“There are people who do their research before they come in, and they’ll see that there’s certain additives within the vaccine which are in many other vaccines. Things like thimerosal, which is mercury, and that’s a big one that people concern themselves with. But the level of mercury that’s found within the vaccine is actually less than what would be compared to a can of tuna, so it is not a concern,” she said.

Whether the vaccine used for flu shots contains low levels of mercury or not, public perception has created paranoia. Although people may be right for questioning what they put into their bodies, they are confused as to how vaccines work, and often behave like customers that want their money back.

“We’ve had many people come and say, ‘I’m not getting the flu shot anymore because every time I get it, I get the flu.’ We give it during flu season and probably coincidentally they’ve come in contact with the flu at the same time that they’ve gotten the shot, and possibly come down with the flu before the vaccine has had its full two-weeks to become fully effective.”

Society’s views towards flu shots are mixed and can be influenced by reported events, such as the recent H1N1 scare. This does not change the concept of “herd immunity,” or the amount of people at UW that received vaccinations. Although some UW students chose not to take part in on-campus vaccinations, that doesn’t mean they didn’t receive their flu shot this term. Flu shots were offered in November 2013, where UW science student Kiya Fu received her annual shot, which she does every year.

“I didn’t get it last week, but before the winter break,” she said, “ever since I was little, I get them yearly.”

The Ontario Ministry of Health suggests that anyone over the age of six years can benefit from getting a seasonal flu shot.