“Dad has a high fever and we’re headed to the ER.” This is never the text you want to receive, especially when your dad is fighting cancer. Infections that are miserable for most people can be deadly for people without strong immune systems, a fact I know all too well as an oncology nurse and family nurse practitioner. I was worried because infections can come on especially fast when your system is weakened by cancer and chemotherapy. I spent the next few hours calling incessantly until the doctor finally confirmed what I was dreading – my dad tested positive for influenza, aka, “the flu.” Thank goodness he’d had the flu shot, or things could have gone much worse.
Despite the minor unwanted side effects and the cost and inconvenience of getting a flu vaccine, everyone should get a flu shot. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on average over 200,000 people in the U.S. are hospitalized, and tens of thousands die from the flu every year. Last year, 219 North Carolinians died from the flu; this year we’ve already seen several flu deaths in our state. Flu shots are considered the best and most important way to prevent the flu.
Unfortunately, flu vaccines have gotten a bad reputation, and less than 50 percent of the U.S. population got a flu shot in 2016. When about 90 percent of people have been vaccinated against a particular disease, even people who haven’t gotten their vaccines are protected through something called “herd immunity.” This means when more people get flu shots, we are all better protected from the flu. Vaccines against the flu aren’t perfect – they are estimated to be between 40 and 60 percent effective in a given year – but they do provide protection by helping your body learn how to fight the flu so if you do get it, it will be a milder case.
There are a variety of options for low- or no-cost flu shots. Many schools, employers and health departments are now offering free flu shots, and when you get your shot from your health care provider, under the Affordable Care Act health insurance is required to completely cover flu shots with no co-pay. Low-cost flu shots are also available at many pharmacies, clinics, health centers and retail stores. If you get the flu, the costs of doctor’s visits, missed work and medications to treat flu symptoms will be much higher than the cost of a flu shot.
Particularly when flu season comes around, inevitably we hear people say, “I always get the flu when I get a flu shot.” The good news is, the virus in the influenza vaccine is a dead virus, so it is impossible to get the flu from an influenza vaccine. The most common side effect is mild soreness at the site of the shot, which is actually a good thing – it means your immune system is working and creating protections against the flu.
Flu shots are recommended for everyone over 6 months old. If you don’t want to get it for yourself, consider the fact that by getting the flu shot, you’re protecting other people in your life for whom the flu could be very dangerous – people without strong immune systems, like the very young, the very old and people like my dad whose systems are compromised. The flu might be inconvenient and miserable for a healthy person, but for people in these categories it can be deadly. There are no laws requiring the flu shot, but many organizations, especially hospitals and health care providers, are now requiring employees to get the flu shot to protect themselves and each other from getting the flu.
My dad just spent three days in the hospital, all because of the flu. Thankfully he had gotten his flu shot, which gave him the ability to fight it even with his weakened immune system, or we could have had an even scarier situation. Flu shots might be bothersome, cost money and require being poked by a needle – all things that no one likes to do – but they are the first line of defense and the best way we can help protect each other from the flu. This is why, as the daughter of a cancer patient, an auntie of small children and a nurse practitioner, I beg you – get your flu shot.
Jennifer Stoyell is an oncology nurse and family nurse practitioner.