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The Scarlet & Black

An Unsolicited Opinion: Wash your hands!


By Katherine Moody


Most people associate October and November with changing leaves and the beginning of the holiday season. However, as the holidays approach and snow begins to accumulate they should also remember that the beginning of winter marks the onset of another season—flu season. Every year the flu kills thousands to tens of thousands of Americans, and every year millions upon millions of Americans choose to forgo the preventative measures recommended by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).Image of columnist Katherine Moody

According to the CDC, getting the flu vaccine and frequent hand washing are two of the most important preventative measures a person can take to reduce their chance of contracting an influenza virus. Many Americans aren’t willing to do either. A 2018 NORC poll found that over 40 percent of adults did not plan on getting the flu shot, and a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that only 3 percent of people manage to wash their hands correctly.

Why do so many American refuse to take these basic precautionary measures? The reasons people refuse the flu shot are varied and often tied to anxiety about illness and the safety of the vaccine itself. The 2018 NORC poll found that the most common reasons for abstaining included: fear of side effects, belief that the flu shot is ineffective, fear of getting the flu from the flu shot, and the belief that they were unlikely to get very sick from the flu. All of these reasons are either irrational or based on misinformation.

Contrary to popular perception, the flu vaccine cannot give you the flu. The flu shot contains inactivated viruses from three or four influenza strains which researchers have predicted will be prevalent during the upcoming flu season. The inactivated virus prompts your body to produce antibodies which have a protective effect, but it’s not capable of infecting you.

It’s extremely important to note that it takes the body about two weeks to develop antibodies in response to the vaccine, meaning that the protective effect of the flu shot won’t kick in until about two weeks after you receive it.

While the flu shot can have some side effects, they are usually very mild. Possible side effects include: soreness at the injection site, headache, nausea, and fatigue. While it may seem reasonable to want to avoid these potential side effects, those who refuse the vaccine on this basis are making an extremely faulty risk vs. reward calculation.

While the flu shot doesn’t guarantee you won’t get the flu, it’s considered by experts to be a vital preventative measure. When there is a good match between the inactivated viruses used in the vaccine and prevalent flu strains, getting the flu shot reduces your risk of contracting influenza by 40-60%. 

And even if you do get sick, having had a flu shot can reduce the severity of influenza symptoms. A 2018 study found that between 2012-2015, flu vaccination reduced the risk of adults being admitted to the ICU with the flu by over 80 percent. Giving up this potential protection to avoid a mild headache and an achy arm simply doesn’t make sense.

Ultimately, though, the protective effect of the flu shot is amplified by every person who receives it. The less likely you are to get the flu, the less likely you are to give the flu to someone else. Anyone can get the flu and anyone can be killed by the flu, but those most at risk of serious illness and death are children under 5, adults over 65 and people with preexisting conditions like heart disease, diabetes and compromised immune systems.

It’s true that most students at Grinnell are young, healthy, and unlikely to experience serious complications if they contract influenza. However, the Grinnell community is large and includes many people who are at a higher risk of serious complications from influenza. Getting the flu shot, even if you are young, healthy  and unconcerned about the flu, can help protect those members of our community.

Flu shots are available on a walk-in basis at Hy-Vee pharmacies and are covered by most insurance plans. The Student Health and Wellness Center on campus can also help you get a flu shot.

To reiterate: flu shots are considered by experts to be the first line of defense against the flu. They are safe and have minimal side effects. Please, for your sake and the sake of others around you, get a flu shot before the flu season kicks off in earnest. And, also, for the love of all that is good in the world, please wash your hands.

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