For Serese Marotta, it all comes back to the seat belt analogy.
The CEO of the advocacy group Families Fighting Flu can’t get through a conversation about the dangers of the flu without comparing getting the flu vaccine to putting on your kid’s seat belt. A seat belt can’t guarantee your child’s safety in 100 percent of accidents. But would you ever not buckle them in?
It’s about trying to prevent the worst, she says. Flu vaccines are typically 40 to 60 percent effective, but when they work, they can — like seat belts — potentially mean the difference between life and death.
“We know it’s not perfect ― but we know it is going to significantly reduce our risk of hospitalization and death and also our chance of illness,” she says. “A lot of people get hung up on that vaccine effectiveness number, but if you don’t get the vaccine, you have zero protection against the flu.”
She speaks from painful experience: Her son Joseph died during the 2009 swine flu pandemic after coming down with H1N1 before the H1N1 flu vaccine was on the market that year. The last thing they talked about was what he wanted to wear for Halloween.
Much More Than “Just A Bad Cold”
The flu, and its vaccine, are often underestimated, Dr. Lynnette Brammer, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s domestic flu surveillance team, told HuffPost.
“I think people don’t always really realize how severe influenza can be,” she said, citing how many don’t believe her that 80,000 people died in the U.S. alone last year ― they think it’s a global statistic. “A lot of people think flu is just a bad cold.”
Among that 80,000 figure are the 185 kids who died of the flu. It was the deadliest nonpandemic year on record since the CDC started tracking pediatric flu deaths in 2004. So far this year, six children have died.
Of the kids who die from flu, the majority have no underlying health problems, American Academy of Pediatrics’ Dr. Geoffrey Simon pointed out.
But when it comes to the vaccine ― the single most powerful tool in preventing the flu ― questions about its efficacy lead many to eschew getting it all together. Less than half of American adults get vaccinated each year. And an even lower proportion ― under 4 in 10 ― got their flu shot last year, which may have contributed to the high rate of cases and deaths.
Which is a mistake, Brammer says.
“We would all love to have a vaccine that works better, but the vaccine that we have does provide protection,” she said. “And even if you get sick, it may protect you from having more severe illness.”
That’s particularly true for children, said Dr. Flor Munoz-Rivas, an associate professor of pediatric infectious disease at the Baylor College of Medicine. She pointed to a study that shows a reduced risk of death in vaccinated children without underlying conditions.
But Munoz-Rivas acknowledged how hard it is to ensure kids are vaccinated each year ― parents have to pull kids from school or add this to their to-do list on the weekend. And since there’s no nationwide mandate for kids to get the flu vaccine in order to attend school as there is with other vaccination regimens, it doesn’t always happen. There are exceptions: Connecticut and New Jersey require the flu vaccine for school attendance, while Ohio, Rhode Island and New York City also require it for child care.
The American Academy of Pediatrics’ stance is that every child 6 months and older should get immunized.
“We want it as easy as possible for families to protect their children,” said Simon.
Flu Season Is Far From Over
Experts have been heartened by the preliminary news coming from CVS ― a top flu shot distributor ― which tells HuffPost that it’s seeing a large uptick in flu shots since this time last year.
But some parents decide that if they’ve missed the push for vaccination in October and before Thanksgiving, then it’s too late and not worth worrying about anymore.
While so far this year the flu’s seasonal activity has been muted, there’s a long way to go, Simon said, warning that a pickup is beginning now in December and peaks are usually expected in January and the spring.
“I tell parents it’s never too late to get the flu vaccine,” he said, stressing “the sooner, the better,” considering it takes about two weeks to fully kick in. But any time is better than never.
After all, he said, flu seasons can last into the spring.
“People cannot afford to learn with their own child how serious influenza can be,” Munoz-Rivas told HuffPost. “Based on what we know, that every year children die of influenza, you cannot afford to wait for your child who doesn’t get vaccinated and happens to be one of these severe cases.”