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For Your Health: Getting a flu shot is more important than ever

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Dr. Graham Colditz Headshot
Colditz

“It’s September, and I’ve already had my flu shot.”

If you want to know how important it is to get the flu vaccine this year, that note from a friend last month may help. Each year, he puts off his flu shot as long as possible and sometimes even skips it, against good advice.

But he knows this year is different, very different. With the coronavirus outbreak ongoing, and the height of flu season just around the corner, getting the flu vaccine is more key than ever. And it’s not just important for personal health; it’s also important for the health of our neighbors and a health-care system overtaxed from a pandemic.

So far, more than 7 million Americans have been infected with COVID-19, and more than 200,000 have died. And in recent seasons, the flu has led to millions of illnesses and thousands of deaths. Until we have a coronavirus vaccine, getting a flu shot will be one of the best and easiest ways we can soften the combined impact of these two diseases.

The flu vaccine is extremely safe, and although it doesn’t 100 percent protect against the flu, it does lower the risk of contracting it. The vaccine also can make the flu less severe if you do get it. On top of this, the flu vaccine helps protect others by making it less likely you’ll get the flu and then pass it on to family, friends, co-workers or others.

Keeping flu numbers lower in a community helps reduce strain on hospitals and health-care providers, which is especially important as cases of both COVID-19 and flu are likely to increase the further into fall and winter we move. In the 2018-2019 season alone, the flu vaccine prevented more than 2 million flu-related doctors’ visits and nearly 60,000 hospitalizations.

If more people get vaccinated, fewer people overall will need medical care. Plus, fewer people will arrive at doctors’ offices and medical centers who need to be tested to rule out COVID-19, since the two illnesses share some similar symptoms, like fever, chills, headache, cough and fatigue.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends an annual flu shot for almost everyone age 6 months and up. And, for most people, the vaccine is pretty easy to get. It’s available at many doctors’ offices, pharmacies, workplaces and local health departments. Some facilities even offer drive-through clinics. Depending on where you live, though, children may need to be vaccinated at a health-care provider’s office.

Most shots are free if you have insurance. Without insurance, they can cost about $30-$40, with some types being more expensive. Contact your state or local health department for information on flu shot locations and affordability. Vaccinefinder.org is another good tool for finding flu shots near you.

With so much focus on COVID-19, it’s easy to forget about the flu since we deal with it year after year. But the reality is, because of the pandemic, it’s very important to do what we can to make this as quiet a flu season as possible.

So, whether you get a flu shot every year, or you’ve never had one, follow my friend’s example and make it a real priority this fall. Let’s all just roll up our sleeves and get it done.

It’s your health. Take control.


Dr. Graham A. Colditz, associate director of prevention and control at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, is an internationally recognized leader in cancer prevention. As an epidemiologist and public health expert, he has a long-standing interest in the preventable causes of chronic disease. Colditz has a medical degree from The University of Queensland and a master’s and doctoral degrees in public health from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.