Despite wide availability, many still not taking advantage of flu shot

Oct 6, 2013

Fall brings many great things—the leaves begin to change color, apples are ripe for the picking — but on the other end of the spectrum, fall also brings something that nobody looks forward to — flu season. A simple flu shot, which is easy to get, may equip people with all the immunity tools they need to fight off the flu. But surprisingly, the majority of people don’t take advantage of it.

This week on Take Care, Dr. Joseph Bresee discusses how the flu shot works and why people should get it. Dr. Bresee is the chief of the Epidemiology and Prevention Branch at the Centers for Disease Control, and helps create the yearly vaccine he believes more people should be receiving.

Click 'Read More' to hear our interview with Dr. Joseph Bresee.

There are two kinds of flu vaccines. The first is an injectable vaccine, or as Dr. Bresee puts it, “the sort of classic vaccine you inject into somebody’s arm.” The injection includes pieces of a flu virus, which then allows the body’s immune system to detect it and develop antibodies to fight against it. Then, if a person gets infected with the real flu virus, the body will already have the antibodies ready to go to fight the virus off.

The second kind is a live vaccine that gets sprayed into a person’s nose. While the word “live” might scare some people, it is actually a very weakened version of the virus which grows just like the real thing. Because it grows in the nose and the throat, the body is able to create a more robust immunity to the real virus, so if infection actually occurs, the body’s defenses will be at the ready. 

According to Dr. Bresee, it takes about two weeks for a person to develop the necessary antibodies to fight off the flu after receiving the vaccine, so early vaccination is important. “We want to make sure that people get vaccinated early enough in the fall, before flu hits their community, so they develop good protection before they experience flu,” says Dr. Bresee.

Flu activity starts to appear in October and November, and usually peaks between January and March. According to Dr. Bresee though, the annual flu vaccine, which is different every year, begins to be developed in February.

Dr. Bresee says there is much uncertainty about how severe each flu season will be, and that is one of the main reasons people should get the vaccine.

“One thing we know about flu is that it’s unpredictable each year. So some years, we’ll have mild years, some years we’ll have severe years, and you can’t really predict it. That’s why we have everybody get vaccinated before flu season starts, because once it starts, it’ll be severe or mild, but you really don’t know ahead of time,” he says.

Trends show that more and more people are getting the flu vaccine each year, but Dr. Bresee believes that the numbers are still not enough. He notes that more than 70 percent of healthcare workers received the vaccine last year, and while that’s an all-time high, he said, “We really need to push harder on the whole medical community to get vaccinated every year,” he says.

In terms of the general United States population, Dr. Bresee says that 45 percent got a flu vaccine in 2012. While that is also an all-time high, he says that “the other side of looking at it is that more than half the people in the United States didn’t get a flu vaccine last year, and that’s a shame, and we need to do a better job in getting people to get the vaccine.”