It doesn’t matter if you’re young and healthy: having the flu, or influenza, can land you sick in bed for days.
“It’s a formidable illness, but too often people don’t see it that way,” says Dr. Joanne Langley, a pediatric infectious disease physician at the IWK, based in the Canadian Center for Vaccinology.
“Part of the problem is that we use the word ‘flu’ indiscriminately. It’s far more serious than a cold or stomach bug. When you have the flu, it makes you very, very sick.” (Click here to compare the differences of each illness).
The statistics back her up. Influenza is one of the top 10 causes of death in Canada, leading to 12,200 hospital stays and 3,500 deaths each year.
“The best way to protect yourself, and the people around you, is to get the flu shot each year,” Dr. Langley says. “Hand washing and staying home if you are sick are also important prevention methods.”
But most people ignore the advice to get an annual flu shot. Last year, just 38-39% of Nova Scotians got a flu shot, according to Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health.
Due to COVID-19, this year it’s more important than ever to roll up your sleeve. Dr. Robert Strang says there’s a risk of severe illness from being infected with COVID-19 and the flu at the same time. “People at high risk of COVID-19-related illnesses are strongly encouraged to be immunized.”
This includes children aged six months to five years old, pregnant people, people over age 65, residents in long-term care, Indigenous people, and people living with chronic disease (for example, people with heart or lung disease). Anyone who lives with or provides cares for someone in any of these groups should also get a flu shot.
What’s holding people back? There are many misconceptions about how vaccines work in general, and the flu shot in particular, including that it doesn’t work and that it gives you the flu.
“The flu shot doesn’t give you the flu,” says Dr. Langley. “How well it works does vary year to year, but it’s between 50 and 60% effective, so it’s worth getting. There is also evidence that if you get the shot and still get the flu, you will not get as sick.”
Are you going to skip the flu shot this year? Here are four reasons to change your mind:
1. To avoid a potential “twindemic”
We could be heading into a perfect storm. If Nova Scotians don’t get their flu shot as we head into flu season during a potential second wave of COVID-19, the health-care system could be overrun with people sick with flu or COVID-19 (or both) and needing hospital care at the same time.
Further complicating things, the symptoms of COVID-19 and the flu are similar, which could stress our testing capacity. The bottom line is, if we don’t get the flu shot and there’s an uptick in flu on top of a second wave of COVID-19, our medical system will be overwhelmed.
2. You’ll protect other people
The flu shot protects not only you, but also everyone around you: your family members, your friends, your co-workers.
“It’s part of your responsibility to be a good community member,” Dr. Langley says. “You’re doing it for the vulnerable people in your social circle and the broader community. You’re also ensuring that you’re able to stay at work and take care of your family.”
3. Pregnant people can protect their babies
Pregnant people are a high-risk category for becoming seriously ill from the flu. It’s recommended that all pregnant people get the flu shot. But in 2018, only 14.4% of pregnant Nova Scotians did – the lowest vaccination rate of all tracked groups.
“When a pregnant person gets the flu shot, it helps protects their baby from influenza,” says Dr. Langley. “Babies can’t get the flu vaccine until they’re six months old, so this is the best strategy to protect them.”
4. It’s easy to get the flu shot
Anyone aged six months and older can get a flu shot. It’s fast, free and widely available across Nova Scotia at doctors’ offices and pharmacies right now. Due to COVID-19, many doctors are providing drive-through flu shot clinics, which makes it very convenient to roll up your sleeve and get it done.
You can also download the free CANImmunize app to keep track of your and your family members’ vaccinations.
“It’s so important to make getting the flu shot a priority for you and your family,” says Dr. Langley.
*This blog was originally published in October 2019, but was updated in October 2020.
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