By Julia LanohaThis op-ed is part of a series from E295: Communications for Engineering Leaders. In this course, Master of Engineering students were challenged to communicate a topic they found interesting to a broad audience of technical and non-technical readers. Last year, 960,000 people were hospitalized for the flu in the United States, which exceeds the total number of staffed hospital beds in this country; 79,000 of these people died. The 2017–18 flu season marked the most deadly in the country’s recorded history, with an increase in approximately 20,000 deaths from the previous record high. Though the effectiveness of the flu vaccine was estimated to be only 40% last year, past years have seen even poorer effectiveness with fewer flu related-deaths. One key differentiator, however, was the number of people who got vaccinated.
The importance of receiving your flu shot is two-fold; the vaccine directly protects you against the virus and also indirectly protects others in your community.The latter effect of the vaccine is referred to as herd immunity, and this is what allows for the containment of diseases. In this way, the flu shot is not only about you, but also about those in your community who may be at high- risk. These populations have weakened immune systems and come flu season rely on herd immunity to keep them healthy. This year, even those with the strongest immune systems should find the time to receive their flu shot. So why aren’t people getting vaccinated against the flu virus? A 2018 study conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago found that 31% of those who did not receive their vaccination believed that the vaccination was not effective, while another 30% reasoned that they did not need it because they “never get the flu.” While I hope that the opening lines of this article were enough to convince you of the effectiveness of vaccination, I am more concerned about clarifying the clouded logic of the second reason.
The problem with preventative medicine is that in rescuing us from disease, it also bars us from comprehending the serious health consequences that could have been.It may be possible that a strong immune system could withstand limited exposure to the virus, but the overwhelming reason that those 30% of individuals did not get the flu is because they are in fact relying on herd immunity. In other words, those people who have never contracted the flu virus actually have the vaccine to thank even if they were not vaccinated. I suppose instead they could thank the population of people surrounding them that actually received the flu vaccination. This vaccinated population was protected themselves, but also bolstered the immunity of the population as a whole.
Unfortunately, herd immunity can only be so strong.It is estimated that 80% of the population must be vaccinated in order to maximize this secondary impact of the flu shot. Eventually, if enough people leave themselves vulnerable to the spread of disease, then the strength of one’s immune system will no longer matter. Influenza would first infect high-risk populations such as young children and the elderly before overtaking enough of the population to pose a serious threat to every individual, no matter how healthy. In this way, the flu shot is an all-or-nothing effect. Preventing the death of 79,000 people this year will require a larger majority of the population to be vaccinated, but the impact of just one person may still be seen in the protection of those immediately surrounding them. If protecting yourself against the virus is not enough of a motivator, get your flu shot for your grandparents, your younger sibling, your pregnant coworker, or your child. Get your flu shot to make the difference between this year and last.
References:Chamberlain, H., Daniels, W., & Barnes, R. (2019, August 16). The world before vaccines is a world we can’t afford to forget. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/2019/08/cannot-forget-world-before-vaccines/#close. Estimates of Influenza Vaccination Coverage among Adults-United States, 2017–18 Flu Season. (2018, November 5). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/flu/fluvaxview/coverage-1718estimates.htm. Kim, T. H., Johnstone, J., & Loeb, M. (2011, September). Vaccine herd effect. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3171704/. Koh, J. (2018, October 25). Drop in Adult Flu Vaccination May Be Factor in Last Season’s Record Breaking Deaths. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com. About the Author Julia graduated from Santa Clara University with a degree in Bioengineering before beginning her time at UC Berkeley in the MEng program. Though originally from Omaha, Nebraska, Julia is hoping to begin her career in the Bay Area following graduation and pursue her interests in climate remediation and sustainability. Connect with Julia.
Op-ed: Have you Gotten Your Flu Shot? was originally published in Berkeley Master of Engineering on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.