Dr. Claire McCarthy is a primary care physician and the Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children’s Hospital. Along with her blogs here on Thriving, you can find her at the Huffington Post and Boston.com. Follow her on Twitter @drClaire.
Most of the time—and this makes me happy—parents are glad, even relieved, when I tell them that we have the flu shot and I’d like to give it to their child. But every year, there are some that aren’t so glad.
In fact, a study just released in the journal Pediatrics shows that of the 13% of parents who refuse or delay vaccines, it’s the flu shot that is most likely to worry them.
They get a particular look I’ve learned to recognize. It’s a skeptical, hesitant look. They pause for a moment, take a breath, and tell me they don’t want their child to have it.
I pause for a moment myself, take a breath, and ask them why.
I’ve heard you can get the flu from the flu shot is the most common response I hear. Everybody knows somebody who knows somebody who got sick after getting a flu shot. Or they themselves got sick after it. They don’t want this to happen to their child, so they don’t want the flu shot.
Here’s the thing: you can’t catch the flu from the flu shot. The virus has been killed. Even the nasal spray, the live weakened virus, is so weak that it could only (theoretically) be a problem for someone with a severely damaged immune system. There’s always the chance of getting a fever or feeling a little sick after getting it, but that goes away in a day or two. What people need to remember is that we give the flu shot during cold and flu season. If you get sick after getting the flu shot, chances are it’s a coincidence.
I’ve heard that the flu shot is dangerous. I get this a lot too. It makes me sad that people have so little trust in their doctors or the Centers for Disease Control or the American Academy of Pediatrics. We want kids to be well. We don’t recommend dangerous things. Vaccine safety is taken extremely serious and studied very carefully. There’s all sorts of information available at the CDC’s vaccine safety website. With any medical treatment there is always a risk of a side effect or reaction, but the risks with the influenza vaccine are extremely small. It’s a safe vaccine.
I know people who got the flu shot and got the flu anyway, I also hear, so why bother? Every year, the people who make the flu vaccine make their best guess as to which strains of influenza are going to be most common in the upcoming flu season. They have to guess, because they need to start making the shot months ahead of time. They generally do a really good job of guessing (they don’t just guess, of course—they do it very scientifically), but it’s always possible that the flu will do something unexpected—or that someone will catch a strain that the shot doesn’t cover. This is pretty uncommon, though.
My kid is healthy—I’m not worried about him getting the flu. It’s true that not everyone gets really sick with the flu; it’s most dangerous for the very young, the very old, and those with chronic illnesses like asthma. But the flu isn’t just your average cold. You can get very sick with it, and every year some previously healthy kids do indeed get very sick—and some die.
The flu shot makes a difference. Just this month a study by Children’s researcher John Brownstein showed that between 2006, when the US started recommending the flu shot for all preschoolers, and 2010 when Canada did too, there were 34% fewer emergency room visits for flu-like illness in Boston than Montreal for kids ages 2-4. There were also 18% fewer visits for older kids, which brings up another important point: immunizing your kid protects other people.
Kids are mobile units who don’t cover their coughs, wipe their noses with their hands and often forget to wash their hands. They are germ-spreading machines. Your kid may weather the flu fine, but what about your infant niece who comes to visit—or Grandma? Or your diabetic uncle?
It’s understandable—commendable, even—to be cautious when it comes to making a choice about a treatment for your child. But when you make your choice about the flu shot, make it based on the best information available. Check out the CDC’s flu website or the influenza information from the Immunization Action Coalition. And talk to your doctor.
My kids are getting it. I hope yours do too.