‘Tis the season…for respiratory viruses. As the weather gets colder, people spend more time indoors. Being in closer contact with others and inside places where the air is not frequently circulated can cause respiratory viruses like COVID-19, influenza and RSV to spread much more easily from person to person.
A key strategy to avoid spreading illness is to maintain basic hygiene practices like handwashing, sanitizing, minimizing large groups of people and wearing a mask in crowded indoor spaces.
Another important step is to get a flu shot. While the flu is not the only respiratory virus floating around right now, getting a flu shot helps to prevent avoidable respiratory-related hospitalizations, and therefore additional stress on hospitals.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this year’s flu season is already earlier and more severe than the last 13 years. This is even more concerning given the unseasonably high numbers of RSV cases that have many children’s hospitals at capacity. Consider the expected rise in COVID-19 cases during the winter months, and health care workers are preparing for a “triple-demic.”
Why get a flu shot?
In addition to preventing avoidable hospitalizations, there are other benefits to getting an annual flu shot:
- Often, a flu shot prevents individuals from contracting the flu.
The CDC estimates that in 2019-2020, flu vaccines were responsible for preventing more than 7.5 million illnesses.
- Individuals who receive flu shots overwhelmingly have less severe cases if they do get the flu.
A flu vaccine won’t guarantee that an individual will not contract the flu. However, study after study shows the shot helps reduce severe illness from the flu. For example, among five studies of adults with influenza-associated hospitalization, vaccinated patients had 31% reduced risk of death compared with unvaccinated patients.
- Those who get flu shots help to protect individuals who cannot receive a flu shot.
Some people do not have a choice – they are not eligible to receive the vaccine. This includes people with severe allergies, and infants under 6 months of age. So, it helps them when the people they encounter are less likely to carry or spread the flu.
- Those who get flu shots also help to protect those with underlying medical conditions that put them at a higher risk of flu complications. By limiting the number of new cases and/or severity of the flu, those at higher risk are less likely to contract the virus, and therefore less likely to get very sick with the virus.
Herd immunity protects the community
A flu shot protects the individual who receives the shot and the people who come into contact with the vaccinated individual. This is the premise behind herd immunity.
When most of a population has been vaccinated against an infectious disease, it lessens the likelihood for illness to spread. When there are fewer people to carry the virus, the virus is weakened and is less able to transfer from person-to-person.
Many infectious diseases that once ravaged large populations of people have been nearly eliminated because of large scale vaccine uptake. For example, diseases like polio, measles and tetanus are rarely seen in the U.S. now because of vaccinations.
James D. Grant, M.D., is senior vice president and chief medical officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.
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