January 28, 2014 – We live in a fiercely individualistic society and we all, rightly so, want to make our own decisions, especially when it comes to our health. And while individuality is important, sometimes we need to work together to triumph over disease.
For the flu, an individual approach isn’t sufficient to fight this illness. There are important things you can do to help your community fight the flu – even if you’re young and healthy, or have never had the flu before.
Break the chain of infection
Working together starts with the concept of herd immunity, also known as community immunity.
There are vulnerable people in every community that either can’t be vaccinated or for whom the flu vaccine doesn’t work very well, such as in older people. When enough people in a community are vaccinated, not only are they protected from the flu themselves, but they also protect these vulnerable people by giving the flu virus little opportunity to spread.
The chain of infection from person to person is effectively broken, even with some susceptible people still scattered throughout the population.
Put schools at the center
Our schools are particularly important in establishing herd immunity.
Consider children gathered together in close contact. They are not always careful about coughs, sneezes and hand washing, and then they return home to their families each day. Once sick, they actually continue spreading the flu virus longer than adults. Research has suggested vaccinating just 20 percent of schoolchildren might indirectly do more to reduce deaths from the flu in older people than directly vaccinating 90 percent of older adults.
Make it simple. Vaccinate.
A challenge in the past has been understanding who should be vaccinated. The guidelines were complicated, being designed to narrowly target high-risk groups, so the flu vaccine was not used as widely as it might have been. We’ve now shifted to a much simpler message: everyone age six months and older should be vaccinated annually. And even once flu season has started, it’s not too late to get vaccinated.
It’s also important to know the flu vaccine cannot cause the flu, which is a common myth. If you have any questions about the vaccine, be sure to check with trustworthy sources, such as your doctor, your child’s school nurse or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
It’s important to know that not only does vaccinating children have benefit for the larger community, it also benefits children and their families directly by decreasing doctor’s visits and hospitalizations, school absenteeism and missed work.
Most importantly, the flu vaccine can prevent flu deaths. During the 2012-2013 flu season, there were 169 deaths among children younger than eighteen, and 90 percent of these children were unvaccinated.
Protect yourself, and your community
It might be tempting to skip getting a flu vaccine if you perceive yourself and your children as healthy and at low risk. But remember, you can help protect vulnerable members of your community by making vaccination a high priority each year – for both you and your children.
The vaccine is the best tool we have for preventing the flu and its potentially serious complications, in ourselves, our families and our communities. Practicing “flu etiquette” also helps. Teach children behaviors that can slow the spread of flu, including hand washing, coughing and sneezing into your elbow, and avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
Finally, remember the flu is not just a “bad cold” and you should seek medical advice if you or your children show signs of flu.