Edited to add: The CDC’s vaccine page as well as this website are both excellent resources if you have further questions about the flu vaccine or vaccines in general. I have done my best to answer questions so far, but I can’t always be here to respond. Thanks to the lovely commenters who have helped me out in this regard!
Anti-vaccine fear-mongering makes me more angry than just about any anti-science bullshit I’ve ever come across.
We vaccinate against diseases that have severe consequences. Some of those diseases are only severe or fatal for a very small percentage of the people who get sick, but when you are talking about an entire country’s population, that still means saving thousands of people from preventable disability or death, not to mention the hundreds of thousands that avoid the extreme unpleasantness of severe illness.
I’ll be the first to admit that vaccines are not risk-free. Vaccines depend on deliberately provoking an immune response to the illness of interest by introducing viral/bacterial proteins into the body along with “adjuvants”–mild irritants that get the attention of the immune system in the absence of actual infection. Getting the balance on this right is crucial: if you don’t get the immune system’s attention well enough, the vaccine is useless, but if you do so TOO well, the person receiving the vaccine will feel sick or even have an allergic reaction. We’ve gotten much better at striking this balance over the years, and vaccines are not allowed to go to market if they cause severe reactions at rates anywhere near the rates of complications from the illness itself. But yes, if you get a vaccination, there is a VERY low risk of severe allergic reaction, a VERY low risk of provoking some other aberrant immune response (autoimmunity), and a medium-low risk of having temporary symptoms like achiness or mild fever.
All that said, many of the things that have been blamed on vaccines are out-and-out lies. Vaccines do not cause autism. Vaccines are not part of a government conspiracy to mind-control, sterilize, or otherwise control the population. They’re the single greatest public health accomplishment in human history. Without vaccines, we would still live in a world where a large percentage of children didn’t survive to age five, and where substantial portions of the population lived with permanent disabilities such as partial paralysis, blindness, or deafness, due to childhood illnesses. I don’t know about you, but I’m damn grateful that I don’t live in that world.
Anyhow, I’ll probably get more into vaccines at a later date, as–in case you couldn’t tell–this is a topic near to my heart, and I could go on for hours. But today’s rant was brought to you by a bit of idiocy circulating on facebook about the dangers of the flu vaccine, so on that note, some information on the vaccine, followed by some excellent sources for more information.
The Flu Vaccine
Let me say first: The flu kills THOUSANDS every year, and it would be much worse if the vaccine were not available. We are lucky to live in a world where dying of infectious disease isn’t the norm, which is why all this anti-vaccine propaganda has been able to take root, but just because we are less aware of the dangers now doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
If you regularly have contact with older people or very young children, you should get the shot even if you are healthy, to protect them. The flu is unpleasant in the best of cases, but it regularly kills the very old and the very young. Vaccines ARE less likely to be effective for those groups because vaccines depend on the person’s own immune response and those people have weaker immune systems to start with. If those people are healthy enough to get the shot (as determined by their doctor), they still should (it’s better than nothing), but what’s more effective is vaccinating the people AROUND them. It’s called herd immunity, and it’s why your choice to not get vaccinated is about more than just YOU.
It is true that for the flu vaccine, the government has to guess what strains to put in the vaccine based on the previous year and what strains are prevalent around the globe, but they do the best they can with available data and usually manage to be pretty accurate. There are years where they are wrong, and some minor strain gets big just in time for US flu season to start, but that is the exception and not the rule.
And finally, the vaccine is NOT DANGEROUS. The vaccine preservative that contains TINY amounts of mercury is only in some versions of the vaccine anyways, but is NOT dangerous. The ONE thing in that article that is correct is that the flu vaccine does slightly increase narcolepsy rates–though they did fail to mention that SO DOES GETTING THE FLU. The increase in rates is not due to some evil vaccine side effect, it’s due to the fact that we have a protein in our brains (in the cells that regulate wakefulness) that is very similar to a protein produced by some flu viruses, and in a small number of genetically predisposed people, an autoimmune response can occur as a result of exposure to those proteins.
In my mind, here are fact-based reasons to not get the vaccine:
- You are a healthy young adult that doesn’t spend much time around vulnerable (old or young) people, and you’d prefer risking the possibility 2-3 weeks of misery in exchange for avoiding the certain inconvenience of a jab in the arm and the potential for a day or two of mild flu-like symptoms while your immune system responds to the vaccine. (As someone who tends to get the flu really, really badly, and who doesn’t tend to have any unpleasant reactions to vaccines, and who rides public transit with people of all ages on a daily basis, this is not MY choice, but since the flu vaccine is not required for most adults and the need to get it yearly is a pain in the ass, this is a choice you get to make.)
- You are significantly immune compromised, due to drugs you take or a current illness.
If your doctor deserves to call themself an MD, they should tell you not to get the vaccine in this case anyways.
- You have a family history of narcolepsy.
Very recent scientific studies have shown that narcolepsy occurs in a minority of people with the right genetic background (the right version of specific immune system proteins) plus exposure(s) to a specific protein in the flu virus and the flu vaccine. Now that it is known what protein causes the autoimmune response, researchers are working on producing a vaccine that won’t lead to narcolepsy, but for the time being at least it would be reasonable to avoid the vaccine AND anyone with the flu if you have close genetic relatives with narcolepsy.
- You have an egg allergy.
The standard flu vaccine is produced by exposing chicken eggs to the flu virus, and as such is contraindicated for those with egg allergies. There are versions of the vaccine now that are made in alternative ways and are safe for those with allergies, but you generally have to get them from your doctor–they aren’t what’s on hand at your average “get a free flu shot here!” drive. So if you have the allergy and WANT the vaccine, you can get vaccinated, but if you were already on the fence, I guess I understand not bothering with the extra hassle?
- You have ever had a severe allergic reaction to the vaccine.
Most of the time, 4 and 5 go together, but it is possible to have an allergy to something in the vaccine other than the egg.