My favorite moment of the Golden Globes telecast was when hosts Andy Samberg and Sandra Oh brought out an army of workers “from the Echo Park Rite Aid,” armed with needles, to vaccinate audience members with the flu shot. “Roll up your sleeves, Hollywood, you’re all getting… flu shots!” Oh and Samberg exclaimed, as LMFAO’s rap anthem “Shots” started blaring in the room. “You know you wore a sleeveless gown for a reason,” Oh added. Celebrities like Willem Dafoe were seen on camera getting shots while sitting inside the Beverly Hilton ballroom. But just in case any of those stars believed that they are now immune, Variety magazine later burst their bubble by announcing that it was all a fake. A fake it may have been, but hopefully it did raise the profile of the importance of really getting your annual shot. It is not too late. This year’s epidemic has started late.
A recent survey of primary care physicians verified what I already knew too well: misconceptions about flu shots abound. 51% of the physicians answering the InCrowd survey reported that they had to spend time clearing up misconceptions about the shots. First and foremost, you cannot catch the flu from the shot. While some other vaccines are “live attenuated,” that is, they give you a mild illness similar to the serious illness they are designed to prevent, the flu vaccine does not contain any live virus and cannot give you the flu. Another excuse I heard often was “I got the flu shot last winter and then I got sick.” That is because the shot is designed to prevent only influenza, not the myriad other viruses that circulate in the winter. The shot did not give you the cold you would have caught anyway. Another excuse is “I am healthy and will recover.” This is legitimate if you are only thinking of yourself. If you are a healthy 20-40-year old and catch influenza, you will be miserable for ten days but almost certainly will not die. However, think of your parents or grandparents – they may catch it from you and they are more likely to die. The CDC estimated that about 80,000 Americans died last winter from influenza and its complications. A final argument is that some years have shown low efficacy of the vaccine in matching the strain of virus that hits the community. This has happened, but some immunity is better than none. (And this year's vaccine has turned out to be a pretty good match!)
One of the great success stories of modern medicine has been the reduction or near-elimination of formerly dread diseases. Smallpox once decimated Europe and later nearly wiped out the indigenous peoples of America when the Europeans brought it over. Polio was the scourge of western countries as recently as the 1950’s. Measles was rampant in children, and while often a minor illness, did cause serious problems including deaths. Vaccine skeptics abound, and many Europeans as well as Americans have refused to vaccinate their children. The result was the worst measles epidemic in a decade in Europe last year, with 60,000 reported cases and at least 40 deaths among children. These and many more are preventable diseases – but only if you and your family get your shots!
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