After last year's flu shot fail, many Americans are weighing whether or not to get a stick in the arm this fall.
The 2015 flu vaccine didn't do much for many people—its efficacy was a mere 23 percent, according to the CDC. But even though it wasn't a slam dunk last year, the Center for Disease Control recommends getting the shot.
The reason? Because the flu is serious business. Depending on how brutal the strain, five to 20 percent of the population contracts it globally each year, and 200,000 are hospitalized. If you're in good health when you catch the nasty thing, you have to worry about missing work and school for three to five days,at three to five days of nausea, fever, chills, body aches, and a whole boatload of other uncomfortable symptoms. But those who are in compromised health should worry about developing more serious issues like pneumonia, heart issues, and even death.
But the vaccine isn't failsafe, which is why so many people choose not to get it. (Despite doctors' urgings, over half of the population skips the flu shot every season—either out of medical worry, expense, or inconvenience.) The reason is simple: The formulation is a basically an educated guessing game.
Each year, scientists use data to predict what strain of flu is likely to hit. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) develops the vaccine in mid-spring, and then various labs across the country start producing it.
Because it's developed months in advance of peak flu season, NIAID scientists are hedging their bets. Last year, they didn't get it quite right. And in general, according to the Cochrane Research Center, the influenza vaccine doesn't usually work very well.
But that doesn't mean that it won't work this year, and for young children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems, it may be worth the risks that are sometimes associated with the vaccine. (These individuals are the highest-risk populations for the flu, and are highly recommended to get the vaccine as soon as possible every flu season.) In fact, doctors encourage every person over six months old to get vaccinated against the influenza virus.
Dr. Mark Hyman points out that certain types of the flu vaccine contain trace amounts of mercury, formaldehyde, egg proteins, and various additives that could trigger allergic effects in some people. There has been no long term research that indicates that the trace amounts of mercury in these vaccines is deleterious to the human body.
There isn't any evidence that the flu vaccine is damaging to our health. So if you do decide to get the shot, do it soon. Technically, flu season begins in October and lasts through May, but the peak of the epidemic usually hits from December to February. Getting the vaccine by October is incredibly important for avoiding the flu, according to the CDC, as it takes about two weeks to kick in and start protecting against the virus.
As always, consult with your doctor if you're truly concerned about getting the vaccine or the flu this winter. And in the meantime, support your immune system as much as you can!
Illustration by Karley Koenig