I marked an anniversary last week by getting a flu shot. It has been 100 years since the pandemic of 1918, during which an estimated 50 million people worldwide — 675,000 in the United States — died from influenza. Last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the flu killed more than 80,000 people in the U.S.
Avoiding becoming a statistic is not my primary motivation for getting the shot.
I do, however, worry about exposing my children to the flu. They both have an autoimmune condition and seem to get sick at the drop of a hat — from pneumonia as an infant to mono at age 9. My husband and I are quite motivated to stay healthy and minimize their exposure to illness, and we know that we could be contagious for several days before we even get sick. He and the boys got their flu shots last week, too.
I also worry about my parents and others who are baby boomers or older. Both my parents and my in-laws are in their 70s, and volunteer work puts me in frequent contact with elderly people. The flu can be particularly serious in people age 65 and older, who comprise the bulk of flu-related hospitalizations and deaths.
With the aging immune system no longer at peak function, older people have less energy and respiratory capacity in reserve. Many elderly people have trouble staying well nourished, which makes fighting infections even more difficult. What might present as a common cold in a 30-year-old can be a devastating illness for someone who is 70. I certainly don’t want to be the contagious carrier of flu to my family members or people I’m charged with helping.
I’m also an intensive care nurse who works with critically ill newborns to 18-year-olds, and the last thing I’d want to do is spread an illness to a patient. The kids we see hospitalized with the flu are extremely ill, frequently with high fevers and needing breathing assistance or intravenous fluids. Often they have underlying health issues, from asthma to cystic fibrosis. Many are or were premature babies — who are particularly prone to respiratory problems — and may be too young to be fully vaccinated. A bout of the flu can result in a lengthy and expensive hospital stay for these kids. It’s important for me to stand with other health care workers to reduce risk of harm and prevent new infections in our patients.
Mind you, not everyone can or should get the flu shot: Babies cannot receive it until they are at least 6 months old. People receiving chemotherapy or who have other immune suppression should determine with their doctor when or if they should get the vaccine. Anyone sick with a high fever is recommended to postpone the vaccination.
Other groups are particularly good candidates for getting the flu vaccine: People with asthma can get acutely ill from the flu, but they can reduce their risks by getting the flu shot. The elderly, or those in contact with the elderly, benefit from getting the flu shot. People with kids, or in contact with kids, can reduce their exposure to illness by getting the flu shot. People who ever come into contact with a premature baby — or someone getting chemo, or someone with an immune deficiency, or someone with a chronic illness — would help keep them safe by getting the flu shot.
In addition, people who shop in grocery or department stores, or ride the bus or light rail, or fly, or go to concerts or sporting events, or attend churches or synagogues or mosques where many people are concentrated in one space — a perfect petri dish for infectious diseases — can protect themselves and others by getting flu shots.
In other words, if you can successfully isolate yourself from exposure to other people for the duration of the flu season, go ahead and skip the shot.
However, if you choose to be part of a community — to socialize with and interact with and do business with and breathe the same air as the rest of us — it is a reasonable expectation for you to get a flu shot.
It’s true that you aren’t likely to become a statistic. But if you won’t get the flu shot for your own health and well-being, do it to help protect your family, friends, colleagues, neighbors and the most vulnerable among us.
Kelly Maynard is a pediatric nurse at Hennepin County Medical Center and a part-time copy editor at the Star Tribune.