You hear it every year around this time—you need to get your flu shot. But while some people follow this advice, it seems that a huge number still skip out on getting their vaccine—despite there being so many important reasons to do so. Just look at last year: According to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a mere 37.1 percent of all U.S. adults got their flu shot during the 2017-2018 season, the lowest number of the seven prior flu seasons.
Flu vaccination rates vary from season to season, but generally, an estimated 41 to 43 percent of adults get the vaccine in a given season. From the 2010-2011 season up until last year, the highest vaccination rate for adults was 43.6 percent during the 2014-2015 season, and the lowest was 38.8 percent, in 2011-2012. However, rates stayed above 41.5 percent since the 2012-2013 season until last year. And last year's vaccination rate was down 6.2 percent from the previous season (43.3 percent in 2016-2017), the report shows.
To get the latest estimates, the CDC analyzed data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, the nation's main system of health-related telephone surveys that collect state data about U.S. residents and their health-related risk behaviors, chronic health conditions, and use of preventive services like the flu shot. But the agency points out that there were limitations of the survey, including decreasing response rates and the fact that it relies on self-reporting.
Last year’s flu season was also the deadliest in recent history—and infectious disease experts suspect it's not a coincidence.
The CDC announced during a press conference in late September that more than 900,000 people were hospitalized with the flu last season, and more than 80,000 people died from the infection, calling these numbers "record-breaking."
This may be in part due to the fact that last season was dominated by H3N2, a strain of the flu that is particularly harsh. “Every time the season is dominated by the [H3N2] strain, it tends to be more severe,” infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells SELF.
But, that fact "coupled with lower vaccination uptake may be why we saw an increase in deaths,” Dr. Adalja says. (There is not yet any research available to prove this correlation.)
It's not entirely clear why so few adults got the flu vaccine last year—but experts have a few theories.
Although there is currently no research to support this theory, mixed messages in the media and even from health-care professionals about the flu vaccine may be a contributing factor to the low vaccination rate, Dr. Adalja says. For example, when the media and physicians or researchers communicate the current vaccine's imperfections, it may send the message that it's not worth getting. “We’re always talking about wanting to get a better, more effective flu vaccine,” Dr. Adalja says. “While that’s true, it may diminish some people’s confidence in it because they miss the message that the best vaccine is the one we have. Getting it is much better than nothing.”
The vaccine also had a particularly intense wave of bad press during flu season last year, William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells SELF. Several reports surfaced that the flu vaccine was only 10 percent effective in Australia—and that vaccine is the same one that was used in the U.S. “The takeaway for many people was that the vaccine was no good,” Dr. Schaffner says. “I think that really impacted the acceptance of the vaccine.” (The vaccine ended up being much more effective in the U.S. at 40 percent, per the CDC.)
Not only that, a study surfaced last September that linked the vaccine to miscarriage. There were a lot of limitations to the study—including the fact that it’s often impossible to figure out the reason for a miscarriage in many cases. But, even though the CDC, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), and the authors of that study still recommended that pregnant women get the flu shot, the research and media hype may have added to the confusion and skepticism among the masses. “Any study that links, however tenuously, rare side effects to flu vaccination is liable to being misinterpreted and misapplied,” Dr. Adalja explains.
It's also important to note that some adults can’t be vaccinated, including those who have had a life-threatening allergic reaction after a dose of flu vaccine or are severely allergic to any part of the vaccine, as well as those who have ever had Guillain-Barré Syndrome (a rare disorder in which your immune system attacks your nerves), the CDC says. However, “the number of adults who truly cannot get the vaccine is very, very low,” Dr. Adalja says. “It’s not the reason why most people aren’t getting it.”
Experts say they hope the latest information on low vaccination rates—coupled with last year's tragically high death rate—will be a wake-up call for adults this flu season.
As SELF reported previously, the flu vaccine reduces your risk of developing complications, hospitalization, and death, even if you do come down with the flu. It's also important to get vaccinated in order to promote herd immunity, which is the idea that when enough people are vaccinated against a disease, it cannot spread as easily amongst people, and in turn, the whole community is less likely to get the illness, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) explains. This is especially important to help protect people who can't get vaccinated (which includes children younger than 6 months) and people who are vulnerable to the flu and flu complications, like elderly persons and others with compromised immune systems.
Ultimately, "The lower-than-usual flu vaccination rates are definitely concerning," Dr. Adalja says. Dr. Schaffner agrees, calling last year's vaccination rate disappointing. "We have to keep our eye on this. We hope we can turn this around this year," Dr. Schaffner says. “The single best thing we can do to prevent flu in ourselves and to prevent us from giving flu to others is to get the vaccine—the recommendations couldn’t be simpler.”