Last week at the Golden Globes, hosts Andy Samberg and Sandra Oh made headlines as they tried to give out free flu shots to celebrities in the audience. This surprise stunt showed famous stars looking shocked and nervous as needle-wielding nurses descended from the stage to offer vaccinations. Samberg joked, “If you are an anti-vaxxer, just put a napkin on—perhaps over—your head and we will skip you.”
This segment certainly got laughs, but perhaps more importantly it got the flu vaccine—and vaccinations in general—back into public discourse. Yes, it might be January but it’s not too late to get your flu shot. While flu season tends to peak between December and February, it can run as late as May.
Furthermore, getting the flu shot saves lives. The CDC estimated that 80,000 Americans died from influenza and its complications last winter, which, to put into perspective, is equal to the number of Americans who died from diabetes in 2016. Our society perceives diabetes as a serious illness that can have major, life-altering complications (which it certainly can—causing blindness, amputation, and heart attacks) but when we think of flu, we often shrug it off as an inconvenience that means a few missed days of work or school. While that may be true for healthy adults, for young children with developing immune systems, older adults, and those with pre-existing health conditions, contracting the flu can be a death sentence. That’s why getting vaccinated is so important, it not only protects you but creates a larger “herd immunity”, which means the more vulnerable aren’t exposed.
This past November, I spoke at Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s summit, “Towards a Universal Influenza Vaccine,” where we discussed how to improve vaccination rates and vaccine effectiveness and address public stigmas and distrust of science. We are seeing a growing trend of vaccine hesitancy in the U.S. as well as globally that is arguably the worst it has ever been. In fact, some have called it our next public health crisis. This change in attitudes toward vaccines is driven by a multitude of factors, including the growth of social media platforms providing misinformation, and a decline in public trust in most all institutions (including science) and the health sector in part due to the opioid epidemic and rising cost of care. The 1998 publication that purported to show a link between autism and vaccines has long since been thoroughly debunked and its author’s medical license revoked, but it continues to mistakenly influence public opinion
In developing nations where the horrific effects of measles and diphtheria are still well-known, parents are willing to stand in line for hours to vaccinate their child. But more developed countries such as Italy, France and Serbiahave markedly worse child-vaccination rates than Burundi, Rwanda, and Senegal. And shockingly, a 2018 survey found 30% of people in France and 34% in Bulgaria strongly disagreed or “tended to” disagree that vaccines are safe, while one in four people in Poland disagreed with the statement that vaccines are important for children to have. This skepticism helped spark the worst measles outbreak in Europe in a decade, with over 41,000 cases and 40 deaths recorded in the first half of 2018 (final 2018 figures could top 60,000cases, the highest this century).
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