Influenza virus

Many of us have seen the signs at work, gotten the emails from our health care insurer, or heard the ads on the radio telling us that it is flu season, and thus time to get an annual flu shot.  Many Americans will comply with this yearly health edict, but many will challenge medical wisdom and opt to face their impending exposure to an onslaught of sneezes, coughs and sniffles without the shield of vaccination. In fact, the CDC estimates that only 42% of adults ages 18 and older received the flu vaccine for the 2015-2016 flu season. This results in many adults getting sick, causing lost days from work, health care expenses, and even death for those highly susceptible, such as the elderly.

Vaccines are available for prevention of many illnesses, and most Americans get a thorough course of vaccinations as children. There are also vaccines that the CDC recommends for adults, such as those for influenza (flu), HPV, hepatitis A and B, and meningococcal disease. As we age, our susceptibility to certain illnesses increases, so the CDC urges older adults to get immunized against pneumonia, shingles, and influenza, which are particularly dangerous to the elderly. Younger adults in late teens to early twenties are strongly urged to get vaccinated against human papilloma virus (HPV), which is sexually transmitted and so common that most American adults will contract a strain of it at some point in their lives. College-aged adults are also urged to get the meningococcal vaccine, which protects against a potentially deadly infection that causes swelling of the protective coverings surrounding the brain. Many universities require this vaccine for incoming students prior to allowing them to register or move in to on-campus housing.

Despite the proven efficacy and minimal risks associated with vaccines, many American adults continue to forgo getting vaccinations, usually due to doubt of effectiveness, concerns of the safety of the vaccines, or just a lack of consistent follow-up on their personal health care needs. The result is costly health and economic losses, both to themselves and to the general public. A recent study revealed that illnesses attributable to vaccine-preventable diseases in the U.S. caused a $9 billion economic burden in 2015. Ninety-five percent of these costs ($8.3 billion) were health care expenses, with the remaining 5% ($700 million) representing productivity losses, such as lost income during treatment. The majority of these costs, approximately $5.8 billion, was attributed to influenza illnesses alone, even though flu shots are readily available at low or no cost to both the insured and uninsured in the U.S. Many employers offer shots free of charge to employees during flu season, and many health care providers and pharmacies make the vaccine available at convenient times by holding special flu shot clinics in evenings and weekends and at community-based locations during flu season.

In addition to the personal health toll vaccine-preventable illnesses can make on the individual, unvaccinated adults put others at greater risk of illness through exposure to the diseases. Children, the immune-compromised, or others who have health conditions that preclude them from receiving certain vaccinations are put at unnecessary risk of exposure to illness by the unvaccinated who become sick. In a place such as Washington, DC, where there is close contact with many people in crowded public venues or through the use of public transportation, these risks of exposure and disease spread are amplified and further illustrates the need for all those who can to get properly vaccinated.

Vaccines are available to adults for the following 14 illnesses: HPV, Herpes zoster (shingles), varicella (chicken pox), pneumococcal disease (pneumonia), meningococcal disease (meningitis), influenza (flu), Measles, Mumps, and Rubella, Tetanus, Diphtheria, Pertussis (whooping cough), and hepatitis A and B.

To find a location where flu shots are available, use this link. Many locations also offer vaccinations for the other 13 diseases for low cost, and health insurance will cover most or all of these shots as well.

You can also test your Flu I.Q. by taking this CDC quiz.