Why I'm Scared of the (Regular) Flu Shot

It’s not just the swine flu shot midlife women worry about. Why don’t we roll up our sleeves for the seasonal flu shot, either?

Meryl Davids Landau
Photograph: Photo by: iStockphoto

I haven’t had to ponder getting the swine flu vaccine. Not being pregnant (thankfully!), under age 24 (double-thankfully!), nor plagued with a chronic condition (for which I’m beyond thankful!), I’m not on the CDC’s priority list. So all that “should you or shouldn’t you” blogosphere chatter hasn’t caught my eye.

But yesterday something else did: a sign in my supermarket offering a $24 regular flu shot. I’ve never had a flu vaccine before, which got me to wondering, why not? And should this year be different? After all, I’ve already been sick several times this summer with various viruses (maybe even swine flu; I wasn’t tested), and don’t relish the idea of a long, achy-fever-coughing plagued winter. Plus, when I interviewed experts for MORE’s article on boosting immunity, more than one described vaccines as an important way to prime the pump. And 24 bucks is certainly cheap enough that money and hassle won’t play a role.

I know the easy answer to why I’ve avoided flu shots is that I’m not in the CDC’s target group for that one, either. That would be people over 50 (not there yet), or having certain medical conditions or living situations. But unlike with the newly minted swine flu vaccine, there’s no shortage of traditional flu shots, so my dose wouldn’t take away from someone who needs it more.

I think the real answer is 1976. I was a teenager when that era’s swine flu vaccine (a completely different animal than today’s version) led to headlines about Guillain-Barré syndrome and even death. The flu meant a few bad days in bed, but suddenly a shot could put you six feet under. I didn’t realize how deeply that thought had settled into my psyche until yesterday, when I blanched at the flu-shot sign.

But the reality is that not only are those sick days awful, if I come down with the flu so, too, likely will my husband, teenage kids, and, even more worrisome, perhaps my 80-year-old father, who (knock wood) is healthy but doesn’t need to catch something that causes 35,000 deaths each year, mostly in the elderly.

The second answer is that our generation has been blessed to have missed out on truly scary, vaccine-preventable diseases. Had I seen friends stricken with paralysis by a polio virus that’s now largely eradicated thanks to a simple shot, I might better appreciate the miracle of this technology. Instead, my experience of vaccines is largely that they make my kids miserable (both from the sting of the needle prick and the arm soreness for hours after), largely to prevent scourges I’ve never seen anyone encounter.

When I really think about it, flu shots haven’t caused a major problem in more than 30 years, while the flu does its dirty work annually

I’m not sure I’m ready yet to ask for the needle. But I’m clear it’s time to bring my cost-benefit analysis up to date. 

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