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Flu shot or not? Weighing the options for the upcoming influenza season

Fall is in full swing, and with the cooler temperatures, many are staying indoors and in closer contact. Flu season is fast approaching, and everywhere we turn, from the daily news to our local doctor’s office, we are told we need to consider getting a flu shot. The emergence of COVID-19 earlier this year has put even greater pressure on preserving health and wellness.

So, what is a flu shot? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an influenza (flu) shot is a flu vaccine given with a needle, usually in the arm. Seasonal flu shots protect against the three or four influenza viruses that research suggests may be most common during the upcoming season.

Getting vaccinated for the flu couldn’t be easier. Shots are available at neighborhood pharmacies, grocery stores, and local health clinics. Deciding to get vaccinated for the flu has both positive and negative options and opinions to weigh out.

The origin of the flu

Scientists are unsure when the flu originally began circulating throughout our population. Since highly contagious viruses need tightly inhabited areas to spread and thrive, many medical professionals and historians believe influenza arose along with the establishment of cities. Many who contract influenza have a good chance of survival, experiencing uncomfortable symptoms such as fever and chills for 3-7 days. When the flu proves deadly, the most common fatalities are small children, seniors, and those with compromised immune systems.

Why do health professionals ask the public to get a flu shot every year?

Each influenza season differs from the previous one. The specific flu strain that commonly occurred last year may not be prevalent this year. Every year the vaccine is tailored to the strain most likely to infect the general public. For those who have decided to get this year’s shot, most doctors recommend getting the vaccine for the current season by the end of October before the virus has started spreading.

The controversy over getting vaccinated for the flu

The mounting controversy over the influenza vaccine is rooted in several different beliefs both for and against the vaccination.

Many argue the vaccine may not be safe due to the containment of harmful substances such as formaldehyde and thimerosal. Others warn of the potential for contamination due to the biological nature (meaning they contain living materials) of flu vaccines. Dealing with living materials presents challenging complexities, and contamination is a continuous threat.

For others, the question of safety is not a concern, but effectiveness. Some doctors and academics question the scientific basis of an influenza vaccine, pointing out that the influenza virus isn’t always the cause of many flu-like illnesses. This argument weakens the potential benefit widespread vaccination could bring to the public.

Medical professionals who defend the flu shot maintain that widespread vaccination will aid in herd immunity while protecting the weakest of the population who may suffer gravely if they contract the virus. The CDC recommends everyone over six months of age get a flu shot (except for a few with specific allergies or past medical conditions). Some immunologists favor the flu vaccine citing it as a boost for the immune system, helping to keep the body primed for a response when the virus hits.

This year is unique in terms of public health due to the novel coronavirus. Some public health officials are stating that now more than ever, it is necessary to get a flu shot. The strain both influenza and COVID-19 could place on hospitals has the potential to be overwhelming.

Do your homework

No one can decide for you if you should get a flu vaccine. While there is data and evidence on both sides of the argument, the debate over whether to get a yearly shot for influenza will likely continue for years to come. Each person is left to make their own judgment as to if they want to get the shot, or not.