After nearly three years of talking about viruses and vaccinations almost non-stop, some people may be ready to tune in.
That would be a mistake, health experts say.
Amid warning signs of a potentially severe flu season just around the corner, these experts fear “vaccine fatigue” will deter people from getting their flu shot — providing a simple, safe way to protect themselves from life-threatening conditions, including heart attacks and strokes. .
Australia, where winter is coming to an end, often serves as a crystal ball for flu in the United States, and the signs are not good, said Dr. Martha Gulati, director of cardiovascular disease prevention at the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles. angels.
“The Southern Hemisphere had a bad flu season, and it came early,” said Gulati, who in 2021 contributed to a review of flu vaccine research in people with cardiovascular disease in the United States. Journal of the American Heart Association. “So we need to be concerned that the exact same thing is going to happen here. That’s why I specifically encourage people to get their flu shot as early as possible.”
September and October are indeed an ideal time, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC, American Heart Association, and other health organizations recommend annual vaccination for everyone six months and older, with rare exceptions.
But even before the pandemic, many people in the US ignored such advice. In 2018-19, the last flu season unaffected by COVID-19, only about 63% of children and 45% of adults were vaccinated, according to the CDC.
The root of the problem is misinformation about vaccine safety, which also predates COVID-19, said Amelia Boehme, an assistant professor of epidemiology in the department of neurological research on clinical outcomes and population sciences at Columbia University in New York City. . She said the politicization of the COVID-19 vaccines reinforced those unfounded fears.
That has led to more discussion, which promotes more fatigue, she said. “People are tired of hearing about how safe it is. People are tired of hearing about studies of COVID results.”
She’s heard people say and read studies that suggest vaccine fatigue also stems from exhaustion from the pandemic itself. She understands.
“We are all tired of the pandemic,” Boehme said. “We all wish it were over. But wishing it was over doesn’t mean it’s over.”
The flu vaccine has always been a hard sell, she said. The idea that it’s not 100% effective at stopping the flu, and that you have to take it annually, doesn’t sit well with some people,” and there have always been thoughts around, ‘Well, the flu isn’t that bad.’ “
But it’s serious. Between 2010 and 2020, the flu killed between 12,000 and 52,000 people each year. The CDC says the flu can lead to bacterial pneumonia, ear infections, sinusitis and aggravation of chronic medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes and congestive heart failure. A 2018 study found that the risk of having a heart attack was six times higher within a week of a flu infection.
The effectiveness of a flu vaccine in preventing infection varies from year to year, as the formula changes to keep up with mutations in the virus. But vaccination reduces the chance that you will become seriously ill. According to the CDC, vaccination is associated with a 26% lower risk of ICU admission and a 31% lower risk of dying from the flu.
The CDC estimates that flu vaccinations prevented 38 million flu cases, 400,000 hospitalizations and 22,000 deaths during the 2019-20 flu season.
Benefits of vaccination don’t end with the flu itself, Boehme said. Research, including her own, has shown how the flu vaccine helps protect against heart attacks, strokes and deaths related to heart disease.
The cumulative effects of vaccinating year after year add up, Boehme said. “If someone has been vaccinated against flu for 10 years in a row, they will have more protection against flu in the coming year than someone who has only been vaccinated for two years.”
Given the benefits, it’s no surprise that Gulati emphasizes the safety and importance of the flu vaccine to her patients.
“The biggest reason people tell me they don’t want it is because they’re convinced it will make them sick,” she said. But flu shots don’t give you the flu, she says. She reassures them that side effects — including pain in the arms from the injection, headache, fever, or nausea — are usually mild and go away on their own. For people concerned about how they will feel afterward, she recommends taking acetaminophen beforehand.
She will encourage them well into flu season, because getting a chance late is better than never.
Gulati and other doctors also recommend getting a new COVID-19 booster that targets the now-dominant ommicron sub-variants of the coronavirus. COVID-19 has become one of the leading causes of death in the country and can cause a variety of problems, including heart inflammation, heart attack, stroke and blood clots in the legs or lungs.
But the flu and COVID-19 vaccines help protect both the vaccinated and those around them by limiting the spread of the viruses. The CDC says it’s safe to get both vaccinations at the same time. This year, higher-dose formulations of the flu vaccine have been approved for people age 65 and older.
Health professionals could do more to promote flu vaccinations, Gulati said. A 2021 study by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases found that less than half of healthcare professionals recommend annual flu shots for most of their patients with chronic health conditions.
“Everyone should discuss this with their patients, but especially those who care for patients with chronic diseases should do better,” she said.
Boehme calls on people not to let their frustration with the pandemic cloud their thinking about the importance of all kinds of vaccinations. “Discussions about vaccines are necessary for public health,” she said. “And especially as we see polio and monkeypox resurfacing, we’re going to see discussions about other vaccines.”
However, Gulati is grateful to be able to have such discussions. “I think if someone approached me and said, ‘Oh, I’m tired of talking about vaccines,’ I would say, ‘How lucky we are to live in an age where we have so much modern medicine and technology. who helped us?'”
But she added: “Of course I’m biased. Because I see the sickest people, when they don’t get vaccinated, and what the consequences are.”
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