The flu season is getting a late start this year, but it will come. Will New Yorkers get their flu shots? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only one-quarter of New Yorkers were vaccinated against the flu this fall, compared with a third of their counterparts nationally.
That low participation rate could cost lives. People—often motivated by fears and myths—may need some facts to help persuade them to get shots.
It's not only their health at stake. It's our common, public health.
Suspicion of vaccines is a serious problem. Last year, even when awareness of the H1N1 flu pandemic was widespread, fully 20% of American adults said they would not get vaccinated—even if some people in their communities were sick or dying. Over the course of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, more than half of all health care workers declined vaccinations, although they could inadvertently pass flu to medically vulnerable patients.
America can't afford a repeat of that intransigence. This year, H1N1 flu has already killed 24 people in Britain, according to health officials there. Some 300 others are hospitalized.
Americans of all ages should take heed; children and young adults are particularly at risk, and complacency is dangerous for everyone.
In any community, most people must get vaccinated to stop a disease in its tracks. Vaccination gives the immune system an "advance look" at germs able to hurt or kill, thus boosting the body's natural ability to fight back. So when a large number of people get vaccinated, they create a human fire wall that can slow or stop the spread of infection. Holes in the fire wall let an infectious disease spread fast. And that could be unfortunate the next time America has to face an outbreak of pandemic flu, or something worse.
Although the 2009 H1N1 flu vaccine was safe and effective, 70 million doses sat unused. People who got H1N1 shots in 2009 tended to be the same folks who get a seasonal flu shot every year, and annual users were four times more likely than irregular or nonusers to be vaccinated.
Why did the rest decline vaccinations? We know only a few reasons. For example, every major study has shown no link between vaccines and autism. In fact, one of the biggest pieces of evidence behind this supposed link was just definitively debunked as outright fraud. Yet that myth persists.
Second, we know for scientific fact very few people can get sick from vaccines themselves. Yet that myth also shows up too often in public surveys.
Perhaps there are other reasons for the reluctance to get vaccinated. Currently, 95% of research funding on vaccines goes for cutting-edge lab science. That's money well spent. But the best vaccine can't work if the public won't accept it. We need more research on why people resist vaccines and how to counteract that.
Remember that before vaccines were developed, Americans could expect whooping cough to kill 8,000 children prior to their first birthday; measles to sicken 4 million children annually and kill 3,000; diphtheria to kill 15,000 teenagers a year, and German measles to cause 20,000 babies to be born deaf, blind or mentally disabled. Polio stalked every American neighborhood.
Today's parents can assume their children will grow up safe from these diseases—only because of vaccines. Immunization remains the best and first line of defense against serious infectious illness. This year's seasonal flu shot incorporates vaccine for H1N1. It's safe, and it's vitally important to get it.
Kellermann, M.D., is the newly appointed vice president and director of RAND Health, a division of the RAND Corp., a nonprofit institution. Harris is a senior economist at RAND.
This commentary appeared in New York Daily News on January 13, 2011