How to prevent ‘vaccine fatigue’ from getting in the way of a flu shot

Prostock-Studio/iStock via Getty Images
(Prostock-Studio/iStock via Getty Images)

After nearly three years of almost nonstop talk about viruses and vaccines, some people might be ready to tune out.

That would be a mistake, health experts say.

Amid warning signs of a potentially serious flu season ahead, those experts worry that “vaccine fatigue” is preventing people from getting a flu shot and, with it, a simple and safe way to protect yourself from life-threatening conditions, including heart attacks and strokes. .

Australia, where winter is coming to an end, often serves as a crystal ball for influenza in the United States, and the signs are not good, said Dr. Martha Gulati, director of cardiovascular disease prevention at Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles.

“The southern hemisphere had a bad flu season, and it came early,” said Gulati, co-author of a 2021 review of flu vaccine research in people with cardiovascular disease in the Journal of the American Heart Association. “So we should be worrying about the exact same thing happening here. That’s why I’m specifically encouraging people to get a flu shot as soon as possible.”

September and October are actually an ideal time, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC, the American Heart Association, and other health organizations recommend annual vaccination for everyone older than six months, with rare exceptions.

But even before the pandemic, many people in the US ignored that advice. In 2018-19, the last flu season not affected 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 clinical outcomes research division of neurology and population sciences at the Columbia University, in New York City. She said the politicization of COVID-19 vaccines amplified those unfounded fears.

That has led to more discussion, which promotes more fatigue, he said. “People are tired of hearing about how safe it is. People are tired of hearing about studies on COVID outcomes.”

You’ve heard from people 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 was over. But wishing it was over doesn’t mean it’s over.”

The flu vaccine has always been a tough sell, he said. The idea that it’s not 100% effective in stopping the flu, and that you have to take it yearly, doesn’t sit well with some people, “and there have always been thoughts around, ‘Well, the flu isn’t that bad.'”

But it is serious. Between 2010 and 2020, the flu killed between 12,000 and 52,000 people a year. The CDC says that the flu can lead to bacterial pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections, and worsening 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 formulation changes to accommodate mutations in the virus. But vaccination lowers the chances of getting 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 during the 2019-20 flu season, flu vaccines prevented 38 million cases of flu, 400,000 hospitalizations, and 22,000 deaths.

The benefits of vaccination don’t end with the flu itself, Boehme said. Research, including yours, has highlighted how the flu shot helps protect against heart attacks, strokes, and heart disease-related deaths.

The cumulative effects of getting vaccinated year after year add up, Boehme said. “If a person has been vaccinated against influenza for 10 years in a row, he has more protection against influenza in the next year than someone who has only been vaccinated for two years.”

Given the benefits, it’s not surprising that Gulati emphasizes the safety and importance of the flu vaccine for his patients.

“The main reason people tell me they don’t want it is because they’re convinced it’s going to make them sick,” she said. But flu shots can’t give you the flu, he tells her. She assures them that side effects, which can include arm pain from the injection, headache, fever, or nausea, are usually mild and go away on their own. For people who are worried about how they’ll feel afterward, she recommends taking acetaminophen ahead of time.

She’ll be cheering you on well into flu season, because getting vaccinated late is better than never.

Gulati and other doctors also recommend getting a new COVID-19 booster that targets the now-dominant omicron subvariants 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 inflammation of the heart, heart attack, stroke, and blood clots in the legs or lungs.

But flu and COVID-19 vaccines help protect both the vaccinated person and those around them by limiting the spread of viruses. The CDC says that it is safe to receive both vaccines at the same time. This year, higher-dose formulations of the flu vaccine were approved for people 65 and older.

Health workers could do more to promote flu shots, Gulati said. A 2021 survey by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases found that less than half of health professionals recommend annual flu shots for most of their chronically ill patients.

“Everyone should mention this to their patients, but in particular, those who care for chronically ill patients need to do better,” he said.

Boehme urges people not to let their frustration with the pandemic cloud their thinking about the importance of all kinds of vaccines. “Discussions about vaccines are necessary for public health,” he said. “And especially as we see polio and monkeypox resurface, we’re going to see discussions about other vaccines.”

However, Gulati is grateful to be able to have such discussions. “I think if someone came up to me and said, ‘Oh, I’m sick of talking about vaccines,’ I would say, ‘How lucky we are to live in an era where we have so much modern medicine and technology that has helped protect U.S?'”

But he added: “Of course I’m biased. Because I see the sickest people, when they don’t get vaccinated, and what the consequences are.”

Editor’s Note: Due to rapidly evolving events related to the coronavirus, the facts and advice presented in this story may have changed since publication. Visit Heart.org for the latest coverage, and check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials for the latest guidance.

If you have questions or comments about this news from the American Heart Association, please email [email protected].

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