Kyle Morton has managed to stay away from the flu for most of his life, with him catching it only once about six years ago. But he feels that influenza vaccination isn’t the reason behind this.
“I’ve never gotten the flu shot so I don’t think it’s the flu shot,” says the first-year civil engineering student.
A recent Angus Reid survey done for Shoppers Drug Mart found that 54 per cent of Canadians did not plan on getting their flu shot this year.
This number is even higher for university and college students. According to a 2013 study conducted by the American College Health Association for Ryerson University, about 70 per cent of post-secondary students did not receive vaccination against the flu that year.
Listen to what these Ryerson students have to say (about 2 minutes long each).
The study also found that about 21 per cent of post-secondary students blamed the cold, flu or sore throat for negatively affecting their academic performance.
Carol Ing, a second-year business management student, recalls the last time she got the flu was two years ago. Luckily, this happened during the break.
“I was sick for the whole week,” says Ing. “I had a headache. I couldn’t focus. I just wanted to sleep.” If she had gotten sick during the school semester, she feels the symptoms would have definitely impacted her productivity and grades.
To combat the possible obstacles that the flu presents, Ryerson’s health promotion department has had pop-up flu shot clinics run in the fall semester on campus for the last several years. Despite the availability of free vaccinations within reach, only about 500 people make use of this service in a typical year.
“I would say we’d probably have a 60 to 65 per cent amount being students, the rest being faculty and community members,” says health promotion programs coordinator Juannittah Kamera.
According to Dr. Camille Lemieux of University Health Network, the flu shot works best in younger healthy adults like post-secondary students, who have a better response to the vaccine due to their stronger immune systems.
Dr. Joseph McPhee, a biology professor at Ryerson, says there has also been some evidence that people who are vaccinated regularly tend to develop resistance to other strains of flu over time.
“The strains of the flu that disseminate every year [are] different but they share some similar previous strain. So if you get vaccinated more and more times, you contribute to that background of immunity,” says Dr. McPhee.
In getting vaccinated, young adults are also protecting the more vulnerable groups like children and the elderly from serious flu illness and secondary infections.
In juxtaposition with the flu shot’s proposed benefits are concerns about its actual effectiveness. After last year’s vaccine offering virtually no protection, more doubt has been raised.
Besides questioning the vaccine’s efficacy, many people believe that the flu shot results in sickness.
Influenza vaccination does not protect against other viruses going around during this time of year. Winter is respiratory virus season, with colds and other flu-like illnesses circulating. If people end up getting sick, they actually may not have influenza.
Also, it takes two weeks for one’s body to develop antibodies after getting the flu shot. In that span of time, the flu shot is stimulating the immune system which can lead to feeling lousy.
“Because your immune system’s been turned on by the vaccine, some people feel a little bit tired and achy and just don’t feel quite well. But they’re probably not actually sick with an infection. It’s just a reaction to the vaccine itself,” explains Dr. Lemieux.
Hover over the image to find out how the flu shot vaccine is made.
Like many other Canadians surveyed in the Angus Reid study, Morton believes that washing your hands, eating healthy, and staying away from sick people are more effective than the flu shot.
Dr. Lemieux does not disregard the importance of these natural preventative measures. “All that good stuff is the crux of preventing yourself from getting the flu,” she says. The flu shot can be the important add-on to the bundle of practices people already use.
However, the flu shot has often been promoted as the end-all preventative measure. According to a renowned research group, the public health community has been guilty of over-estimating the flu shot’s effectiveness in order to encourage vaccination.
“It’s better to be transparent and honest about the shortcomings as well as the benefits,” says Dr. Lemieux. “When that happens, I feel that people are more likely to trust you down the road.”
For now, Morton will stick to his own methods and go another year without getting vaccinated. “If you’re gonna get the flu, you’re gonna get the flu, regardless of whether you get the flu shot or not,” he says.