October 1, 2013

Got My Flu Shot

English: WASHINGTON (Sept. 27, 2011) Chief of ...
WASHINGTON (Sept. 27, 2011) Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Jonathan Greenert receives his annual flu vaccine at the Pentagon. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Shannon E. Renfroe/Released) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I got my yearly flu shot this week. It seems to get a little earlier each year. I don't recall ever doing it before the start of October. I am aware that there is considerable skepticism about the flu vaccine and that some of the vocal skeptics are atheists. I have certainly heard their objections after writing something here about the flu vaccine previously. Some do not believe it is effective and/or that it does more harm than good. So why did I get the shot again this year like I have the past several years?

First, my doctor recommended it. He said that the flu vaccine is recommended for people of my age and with my medical history. That seems like a valid reason to at least consider it. Second, the cost of the vaccine is completely covered under my health insurance. Since I don't have to pay anything for it or go out of my way to find it, cost is not a deterrent. Third, several of my co-workers have been sick with colds and flu in the past two weeks, leaving me more aware of not wanting to get it than I might otherwise be at this time of the year. There is nothing like seeing people I've been in close contact with get so sick they have to miss work to make me think that I'd like to avoid the same fate. Fourth, my job brings me in contact with more sick people than I can count. In addition to my co-workers, I must contend with the graduate students in my lab who seem to catch whatever goes around and the coughing and sneezing undergrads in the classes I teach.

But the vaccine might not work! That's certainly true. I might get sick anyway. In fact, my exposure to so many different things makes it fairly likely that I will catch something for which the vaccine is not effective. But the vaccine is a way of improving my odds at no real cost. If past years are any indication, I will get sick less often and less severely than those around me who skip the vaccine. There are no guarantees though.

But what about the side effects? I've learned to expect two side effects from getting a flu shot, as I experience them predictably with every shot. The spot in my arm where the shot was delivered will swell up and be painful to the touch for 48-72 hours. It feels like I was punched hard in the shoulder, and it hurts enough during the first 48 hours that it will wake me if I roll over onto that side while sleeping. I'll also feel a bit run down for about 48 hours after receiving the shot, almost as if I'm coming down with something. That's it.

I have a fairly realistic sense of skepticism about what to expect from the vaccine because I have had years where I got the shot and still got the flu. In fact, this happened last year. I've also had years where I skipped the shot for various reasons, and I managed to get through some without getting the flu. But on balance, I'm inclined to think it is worth it for me to get the shot. Given the choice, I'll usually throw my lot in with science.

For more information about the anti-vaccine arguments and the science behind the influenza vaccine, see this post from Debunking Denialism.