Columns

Corvese ’15: Just a pinch

By
Opinions Columnist
Thursday, October 25, 2012

I am not a doctor. I am not a pharmacist. In fact, I have no medical training. But I do know enough about trends in infectious disease to know that flu shots are a very important part of promoting health and wellness of self and others, especially during these coming winter months. For this reason, I was shocked to see John Riedel, clinical assistant professor of emergency medicine at the Alpert Medical School, suggest in a recent Providence Journal letter to the editor that flu shots are not all they’re cracked up to be.

He claims that since 31 percent of people in a British study maintained immunity from past flu infections, vaccination is less necessary. And even with vaccination, individuals can still acquire and transmit the flu. Plus, the fact that we have to get a new vaccine every year suggests their inefficacy, he wrote, contrasting flu shots to vaccines we get as children that last far longer.

Indeed, 31 percent is a decent statistic for natural influenza immunity. But what about the other 69 percent? What about those with autoimmune disorders or AIDS? Furthermore, it is not the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that are to blame for releasing a new vaccine each year, but the ever-changing influenza virus. It has countless subtypes that affect people at different rates each flu season. It is difficult in advance to know which strain will be prominent during any season, so the vaccines must be adapted to what is affecting the most people.

Is the flu vaccine perfect? Absolutely not. A recent study performed by the University of Minnesota determined that the vaccine has about a 60 percent efficacy rate for adults. But this 60 percent should not be a statistic that scares people away from the vaccine. Rather, it should be a motivating factor for the field of public health to improve the way we prevent the spread of influenza.

Getting shots isn’t my idea of fun. For most of my childhood, I was terrified of doctors sticking needles into me. But I have come to learn that vaccination is one of the most important things people can do to protect themselves and those around them from disease. It is appalling to see Riedel shunning such a critical part of modern medicine. Furthermore, to hear this from a doctor affiliated with Brown – whose undergraduate campus is filled with people bound to spread contagions through close-living quarters and other more intimate interactions – leaves room for concern.

Riedel also brings up the case of novel influenza viruses, the most notable of which recently was 2009’s H1N1 swine flu. He stated that the seasonal flu vaccine normally released did not provide immunity for the swine flu. That is certainly true – which is why health care providers followed up by releasing a separate vaccine that did protect against the swine flu. This past summer, another novel influenza strain, H3N2v, infected a few hundred people nationwide. Though it did not rise to pandemic status like H1N1 did in 2009, research began early on to develop a potential vaccine.

Mandating vaccinations for diseases such as polio or diphtheria is completely necessary, as they have allowed us to inhibit the spread of these diseases in many parts of the world. Flu is a different story altogether, and chances are we will never be able to completely eliminate it. While we should allow people to make their own health-care choices and not mandate the flu vaccinations, we should strongly encourage them. Children and the elderly, who tend to have underdeveloped or compromised immune systems, have the highest risk of flu complications and should get vaccinated.

And of course, college students like ourselves should make efforts to vaccinate. We are bound to spend quite a bit of time this fall sneezing and coughing and hugging each other once the weather cools down. Vaccination does not only provide immunity to the flu, but it also contributes to the herd immunity that is crucial to inhibiting the spread of disease.

There is little risk in receiving a flu shot beside maybe having a sore arm afterward. It is unfortunate that powerful figures such as Jenny McCarthy have spread unnecessary fear of vaccination. Concerns over conditions such as Guillain-Barré syndrome are ridiculous when looking at the condition’s very low incidence rate. You run a greater risk of being injured any time you drive a car.

Due to the flu’s dynamic nature, flu shots can not be “one size fits all” vaccines like those for infectious diseases such as polio or smallpox. Regardless, everyone should get one. Brown’s flu shot clinics just finished, but plenty of locations around Providence and Rhode Island still offer them. So roll up your sleeve, close your eyes and hold your breath – it’s just a little pinch.

 

 

Gabriella Corvese ’15 already got her flu shot and can be reached at gabriella_corvese@brown.edu.