This article originally appeared on the Disease Daily on December 2, 2013.
By Jane Huston and Robyn Correll Carlyle
Two out of five.
When public health officials make their rounds to encourage everyone six months of age and older to get the flu vaccine this year, two out of every five of you won’t.
Maybe you’re too busy. Maybe you don’t think it’s that important. Maybe you think that the flu vaccine would give you the flu (which it can’t).
“I’m young and healthy,” you might say. “I never get sick. And even if I do, it won’t be that big of a deal.”
But here’s the thing: It’s not just about you.
If you have influenza, you can pass the virus on to other people, sometimes without even realizing you’re sick. The communicable period (the time during which an infectious agent may be transferred from an infected person to a susceptible person) for influenza is between five and seven days, but can start one full day before you feel any symptoms. Some people infected with the virus never develop any symptoms, but are still contagious. That means you are able to infect others with influenza without feeling sick yourself. It seems incredibly unfair, but hey, all’s fair in love, war… and infectious disease.
It can be normal, everyday interactions that you wouldn’t think twice about. You touch doorknobs after discreetly wiping your nose. You squeeze onto mass transit and give out a little cough. You stand next to people in line at the grocery store and chat with them in close proximity. All of which are prime opportunities for influenza to jump from one person to another.
When you leave yourself open to the flu, you also leave yourself open to spread that flu to other people. And what might not be “that big of a deal” to you, can be a very big deal to someone you care about.
Every year between five and 20 percent of Americans will be affected by influenza, and at least 200,000 people are hospitalized annually because of it.
“Hang on now,” you might say. “Can’t we just vaccinate the people most likely to die or be hospitalized from the flu?”
Here’s the thing. Not everyone can be immunized against the flu. Babies under the age of 6 months and those who are seriously ill, for example, are not able to get the vaccine. And even older adults (the population most likely to die or be hospitalized due to flu) might not develop a strong enough immune response even after they’ve been vaccinated.
That’s where you come in. Something as simple as getting your flu vaccine helps to avert an average of 2 million cases of the flu and 18,000 flu-related hospitalizations every year. Because you can’t spread the flu if you never get infected.
But if we can’t appeal to your sense of civic duty, how about your pocketbook? Every year, the flu results in an estimated 31.4 million doctors visits and direct medical costs averaging $10.4 billion annually. Because people are too sick to go to work — or in some cases lose their life to the flu — we forfeit an average of $16.3 billion every year in projected lost earnings.
If you get infected with the flu and pass the virus onto another unsuspecting soul, that could mean days of lost pay — or longer if they have a family that becomes infected as well. After all, each infected person is likely to infect an average of 1.3 more people.
So for two out of five of you, this is our plea. Please don’t be that guy. Don’t be the one who could have received the flu vaccine but didn’t and now everyone in your office/kid’s school or daycare/grandmother’s assisted living facility has come down with it, too. You’re better than that. Besides, no one likes the sick guy.
Jane manages the Vaccine Finder project at Health Map, the host site of the Disease Daily. Robyn is contributing writer for the Disease Daily and works as a health educator for a non-profit focused on vaccine education. Both are fully up-to-date on their immunizations.