A flu shot in the dark

University health experts address common flu shot misconceptions, explain why students don’t get the vaccine

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A 2017 poll by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases found that low vaccination rates among college students were due in large part to perceptions, and in some cases misconceptions, about flu shots. As the 2018-19 flu season approaches, medical staff respond to some common concerns about flu vaccinations and students explain what determines if they get vaccinated. 

The NFID survey found that about 46 percent of college students typically get the flu vaccine. While rates are slightly higher among University students — at around 57 percent according to Dr. Meredith Hayden M.D., director of Student Health — they are still well below the 70 percent goal set by the Department of Health and Human Services. Among students who reported not getting flu vaccines to the NFID, 59 percent reported fears of the shot causing the flu, 36 percent believed they were healthy and did not need it and 30 percent were skeptical of the vaccine’s efficacy. 

In response to these statements, Hayden pointed out that flu vaccines, including those used by Student Health, do not contain live virus and therefore cannot cause the flu. They do, however, take up to two weeks to generate an immune response that will protect against influenza. If a person contracts the flu soon after getting a flu shot, it is likely that they were exposed to the virus before the vaccine was able to take effect. 

This delayed reaction may also contribute to ideas that vaccinations do not effectively prevent flu. While the precise efficacy of the vaccine varies year to year depending on a variety of factors — including the patient’s characteristics, the types of flu strains circulating and which strains were included in that year’s vaccine — it typically reduces the chance of catching the flu by about 40 to 60 percent. 

Influenza is the deadliest vaccine-preventable illness in the United States — each year tens of thousands of people die from flu and flu-related complications. 

“Even healthy people can suffer serious influenza illness, resulting in hospitalization and death,” Hayden said. “Flu is not just a cold. People with the flu feel terrible. Its hallmarks include high fever, all over body aches, sore throat, cough and sometimes nausea and vomiting.”  

Even if an individual is not concerned about their own personal risk, Hayden encouraged students to think about the the wellbeing of the rest of the community. While contracting the flu may not be very problematic for the average college student, unvaccinated students may put classmates, faculty and visitors with compromised immune systems or other underlying health conditions at risk of exposure to the virus. Among these groups, a single bout of flu could result in severe health problems, or even death. 

According to Public Health Sciences Prof. Rajesh Balkrishnan, students have a unique responsibility to consider how their health choices impact the rest of the community. 

“I think it's particularly important especially if you are working in a community like ours, which again has a large amount of the elderly patients, a lot of students, young individuals,” Balkrishnan said. “We have a very large medical center … a lot of people come to Charlottesville for care.”

As to the vaccine’s imperfect efficacy, Balkrishnan said, “It’s a choice you make and a chance you take.” Acknowledging that while the flu shot does not work 100 percent of the time, Balkrishnan said it is the best available option for preventing flu. He said many fears about vaccine safety are “baseless” and that vaccination remains the most cost effective way to prevent numerous deadly, contagious diseases. 

In interviews, students reported that convenience plays a major role in whether they decide to get vaccinated. Second-year College student John McHale acknowledged that while he no longer believes flu shots can give a person the flu, he often puts off getting the shot and does not make it a priority. 

For third-year College student Monica Sebastian, who occasionally gets the flu vaccine, it comes down to accessibility. 

“I'm reluctant to go somewhere just to get a flu vaccine, [unless] I’m already at the doctor's office,” Sebastian said. “I realize that it’s effective, it just comes down to having a accessible and easy way to get the flu vaccine.”

Fourth-year Batten student Julia Payne only began getting vaccinated against the flu after coming to college because the University makes it convenient for her, citing the flu shot clinics offered on Grounds.     

Student Health administers about 4,100 flu vaccines each year, though that represents only a portion of vaccinated students, as some may choose to get their shots from a provider outside the University.  Hayden said that the University actively promotes higher vaccination rates through digital messaging, as well as by offering flu shots at all General Medicine appointments and during the annual flu clinic in Newcomb Hall. Hayden advised students to get the shot early in October, before the height of the flu season and the midterm season. 

Students can check the on-Grounds Vaccination Schedule or the Student Health website for more information on flu clinic hours and appointments. Flu shots from Student Health or one of their affiliated clinics cost $30 but are covered by health insurance. Student Health will only directly bill Aetna Student Health Insurance plans — students with other insurance providers will have to pay out of pocket and request a receipt to be reimbursed by their insurance. 

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