Opinion

Renée Graham

You can’t be pro-vaccinations and skip a flu shot

FILE - In this Feb. 7, 2018 file photo, a nurse prepares a flu shot at the Salvation Army in Atlanta. The nation’s nasty flu season has been fading for two weeks now, and health officials now feel confident the worst is over. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the season apparently peaked in early February, when 1 of every 13 visits to the doctor were for fever, cough and other symptoms of the flu. That intensity level was among the highest seen in a decade. But CDC officials on Friday, March 2, said it's been falling since then, and last week dropped to 1 in 20. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)
David Goldman/AP

Until a few weeks ago, I’d last had a flu shot when doctors, equipped with lollipops, were still making house calls.

For years, I’ve been lucky enough to work in offices that offered free flu shots, and, for years, I never got a flu shot.

My girlfriend and deskmates, sporting small bandages on their upper arms, were my yearly bulwarks against illness. I put my faith in herd immunity — the many who are vaccinated provide a measure of protection for those who aren’t — and never gave getting a flu vaccine a second thought.

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Then, I read this in a Twitter thread: “The flu nearly killed me.”

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Charlie Hinderliter, a then 38-year-old from Missouri, assumed only the very young and very old were at risk for the most serious flu complications. Like me, he considered himself healthy enough to skip an annual flu shot. Last January, fighting the flu and feeling lousy, Hinderliter went to the emergency room. Turned out he was suffering from pneumonia, sepsis, septic shock, and multi-organ failure. Relatives flew in to say their goodbyes to him.

Hinderliter spent nearly two months in the hospital, including a week in a medically induced coma, and another three weeks in a nursing home. “I was fortunate that I will make a full recovery,” Hinderliter tweeted. “I don’t recommend my experience. Get a flu shot.”

That did it — well, that and the uncomfortable sense that my abstention made me no different than any other anti-vaccination nutcase. I got a flu shot.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention isn’t making any prognostications for the upcoming flu season, 2017-18 was a devastating record setter in this country. More than 180 children died from influenza; 80 percent had not been vaccinated.

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One of them was Leon Sidari, 4, who died on Christmas last year only two days after first experiencing general flu symptoms. His parents, both Air Force physicians, had delayed their son’s flu shot to coincide with another doctor’s appointment.

“As a mother, I wish I had fully appreciated the risk of the flu to my healthy child,” Laura Sidari wrote in a Facebook post last month. She told CNN, “It’s much better to prevent it than to be in a situation where you’re needing to treat it.”

Last season’s dreadful statistics may have been an aberration; they could also be a harbinger of increasingly deadly seasons to come.

Flu shots are recommended for everyone over the age of six months. Yet, according to CDC, fewer than half of people in the country get them, even though they are readily available. Not a single state garners more than 50 percent participation — Massachusetts comes close with 49.7. At least a dozen fall below 40 percent.

Without sound medical justifications, such as an allergy, there’s no reason to forgo a flu shot.

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Vaccinations are safe, and save lives. Yet fueled by junk science, fear-mongering, and propaganda, some communities aren’t vaccinating their children. In recent months, this has caused measles outbreaks in parts of New York, New Jersey, and a chicken pox outbreak at a North Carolina private school. Doctors are seeing numbers unheard of for decades.

Any link between autism and vaccinations is false. This, however, is true: Fewer vaccinations lead to more deaths. An epidemic of misinformation is fueling epidemics that carry great risks for children and adults.

As for my own flu shot, yes, I almost changed my mind. I squirmed like a toddler. I yammered about my fear of needles. I wondered aloud if the vaccine would kill me before I could make it back to my desk.

The patient nurse, a woman who’d clearly heard it all before, calmed me down and did her work; the needle seemed to be out of my arm before I ever felt it go in. Hours later, she even asked a co-worker to check on me. Save for a slightly tender upper arm, I was fine. (No lollipop, though.)

You can’t be pro-vaccinations and skip a flu shot. Also, slight needle prick beats a medically-induced coma. Every time. This year, I won’t need to rely on my girlfriend or deskmates to keep me healthy.

For once, I can say I’m happy to be part of the herd.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.