If condoms were like flu shots they would never sell. In fact, we likely wouldn’t even make them – there would be no market. If condoms conferred only 50-60% protection, we would look somewhere else, and in fact we have. Despite a condom’s 98% efficacy in preventing pregnancy, the market for oral contraceptives is booming. I am not naïve enough to negate that there is a significant disparity between the lifelong consequences of acquiring the flu and parenting a child at the wrong place or time, but the reverence we place upon the flu vaccine as a public health maven is adding to its social stigma and deep capacity for cultural and conversational polarization.
Across the spectrum of casual conversation and through dialogue in my personal practice, the flu vaccine is akin to a religion is that people either ‘believe’ in it or they don’t. I don’t generally espouse my vaccination beliefs in practice, preferring to simply know whether someone has had the shot or not and how they have faired throughout the season. When someone asks where the flu shot can be acquired I direct them to public flu clinics, their GP or a local pharmacy. It is not within my scope to provide the flu vaccine and if someone feels they are in need, I am happy to direct them accordingly. Regardless of someone’s beliefs around the flu shot, the fact remains that its protective capacity leaves a major vacancy in someone’s vulnerability to acquiring the flu. 50 or even 60% efficacy means that there is still a 40-50% chance you will acquire the flu despite what you thought were your best chances at protection. For many of the believers, there is a sense of microbial invincibility that renders them vulnerable to the very real possibility of acquiring any number of other viruses from our environment.
My focus, regardless of whether a flu vaccine has been provided, is to emphasize those things we can be doing to not only avoid the germs themselves but additionally arm our immune systems against vulnerabilities. Lack of exercise, poor nutritional status, inadequate intake of vitamin D, chronic stress and sugar consumption have all been shown to contribute to an under-functioning of our immune system. If employers really want to be improving the health of their staff, it is not necessarily a public health nurse they need to be bringing into the office, it is a change in culture that discourages the office off-loading of cookies, cakes and chocolates. In the very least, cookies should be moved up a flight of stairs so there is some exercise involved in their retrieval.
I don’t expect scientists to be able to predict the precise compliment of influenza viruses from year to year, nor do I believe that we can fight the flu with complimentary therapies alone. I do however feel strongly that a multi-factorial problem requires an equally dynamic approach. Until we start having that conversation, the believers and non-believers will just have to fend for themselves.
Coming Up: Protecting yourself against the flues second seasonal wave.