“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 36% of Nova Scotians got a flu shot, according to Public Health.
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. You’re at risk every year
“Flu illness varies in severity each year,” says Dr. Langley. “And there can be outbreaks of severe influenza even among healthy young people.”
People most at risk of getting so sick that they need to be hospitalized are children under 24 months old, pregnant people, immune-compromised people (for example, people undergoing chemo), those with heart or lung disease and people over the age of 65.
“As you age, your immune system weakens, so vaccines don’t work as well,” Dr. Langley says. “So, our strategy is to give a higher dose of the vaccine or use an immune booster, an adjuvant, in the vaccine [to older people].”
Nova Scotians over age 65 can pay for the high-dose or adjuvanted flu vaccine. The government provides the high-dose flu vaccine for free to all Nova Scotians living in long-term care homes. The regular flu vaccine is free for everyone.
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 another high-risk category for becoming seriously ill from the flu. It’s recommended that all pregnant people get the flu shot. But last year, 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 starting Oct. 15. Many workplaces also offer flu-shot clinics, which makes it super 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.