I admit it: I used to come up with all sorts of reasons for not getting the flu shot. But then my kid started daycare, got sick a lot and unwittingly passed along nasty germs to her susceptible mama. As I racked up the sick time, I decided to stop with the excuses and start hauling my family into the doctor’s office for an annual jab.
Turns out, I’m not the only one who is hesitant about the vaccine. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, only 34 percent of Canadian adults got a flu shot last year. So I asked a couple of experts to address the excuses people (like me) use to avoid the needle.
1. “We don’t need it; my family doesn’t get sick.” Well, that’s great, but getting the flu shot is as much about protecting others as it is about keeping your family healthy. “By getting the flu shot, you’re also reducing the risk of transmitting influenza to other people who may get more seriously ill,” explains Michelle Murti, a Public Health Ontario physician. This includes kids under five, Grandma and Grandpa, pregnant women, people with chronic health problems and people from Indigenous backgrounds. According to a 2014 study, you can even pass on the flu if you don’t exhibit any symptoms. Last year alone, hundreds of Canadians died of influenza and another 5,300 were hospitalized.
2. “My kids are afraid of needles.” My daughter panics at the word “needle,” so I was overjoyed when a nasal spray vaccine came on the market in many provinces a couple of years ago. The spray is available to kids between two and 17. “There’s been some discussion in the States that the nasal spray vaccine hasn’t worked as well as the needle. But the data from Canada looked just fine,” says Allison McGeer, a physician who heads Infection Control at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital. While the spray is no longer used south of the border, the Public Health Agency of Canada still recommends both the spray and the jab. [Editor's note: The nasal spray was not available in Canada for the 2019-2020 flu season}
3. “I don’t have time.” Thankfully, we don’t even need to book a doctor’s appointment for flu shots anymore. A few years ago, the vaccine became widely available in pharmacies. So now we can easily get our flu shots while we buy our toilet paper, although in many provinces kids under a certain age still have to get them at the doctor's office. But in BC, for example, 95 percent of pharmacists are authorized to administer the shot.
4. “Flu vaccines are going to create a superbug.” This was my biggest concern about flu shots. Turns out, I was confused by all the messaging around antibiotics, and the two work very differently. Antibiotics attack bacteria, which will try to find ways to survive. McGeer explains that getting the flu shot is “like training for the 100-yard dash. You’re letting your immune system practice, so when the real thing happens, you’re ready. There’s nothing about vaccines that results in evolution of bacteria or viruses.” (And, for the record, the flu vaccine does not cause autism, either.)
5. “The shot often doesn’t include the right flu strains anyway.” The flu shot is made early in the season, before doctors know which flu viruses will circulate. To cover the broadest range possible, each vaccine protects against four different types of influenza. On average, the flu shot is between 50 and 60 percent effective. Sure, it’s not perfect, but “it’s so much better than nothing,” says McGeer.
6. “I’m allergic to eggs.” To make flu vaccines, the virus is grown in chicken eggs. Initially, doctors were concerned that small traces of egg protein might be extracted along with the virus, so they warned those with egg allergies to skip the flu shot. But, in the mid-2000s, researchers started testing the flu vaccine on egg-allergic people to see if it was safe. “Those studies are done now,” says McGeer. “And it turns out that influenza vaccines are perfectly safe for egg-allergic people.”
7. “We’ll get the flu from the vaccine.” Nope. You really won’t. The virus is killed and purified before parts of it are used in the needle vaccine. “It can’t make you sick,” explains McGeer. The nasal spray, however, does have live viruses. But those strains are both weakened and cold-adapted. This means the virus can survive in surface cells lining the nose (where it prompts the immune system to produce the protective antibodies), but it can’t get into deeper cells or the lungs, where it would usually make you sick. Still, consult with your doctor to make sure the spray is the right choice for your kids. Children with certain medical conditions, such as asthma or chronic lung disease, are more at-risk of complications and might need to get a needle instead.