Fighting over the flu


By Kathryn Mayer

I feel like we’ve been debating to the point of excess recently. Right now, we’re all about the gun debate. And the debt ceiling. And abortion. And Lance Armstrong.

And maybe it’s partly the industry I cover that’s so prone to getting people fired up about things that I feel it even more—what’s causing rising health care premiums? Can the government really tell us we have to buy health insurance? Whose fault is it that we’re getting so fat? Should we raise the Medicare age?

Sure, I like a good debate as much as the next person, but it makes me a little worried about our quick reaction to cry controversy when it’s over the flu.

We’ve heard a lot about the flu season so far. Even though it’s still early in the season, we’ve heard the words “epidemic,” and “widespread” being thrown around a lot, so it doesn’t sound good.

Of course, it’s not something to take lightly: It’s highly contagious, it costs businesses and employers millions of dollars and it takes tens of thousands of lives a year.

So it’s not really a surprise that we keep getting reminded—from our doctors, from insurers, from the CDC—to get our flu shots to help prevent the flu season from getting worse. And that’s where the debate comes in.

There are a ton of people who simply refuse to get the flu vaccine. But it’s been the health care workers who have refused it who’ve been making headlines. As one example, an Indiana hospital fired eight employees—including three veteran nurses—after they refused mandatory flu shots. It sparked the debate over employee personal rights or patient safety.

Mandatory flu vaccinations for health care workers are becoming more and more common—a number of medical organizations—including the CDC—have recommended it, citing patient health and well-being as a top priority. It’s no surprise as to why: People who are most at risk are already in the hospital. Within a few years, I’m sure it will be less common for hospital and health care workers not to have the mandated vaccine—and it’s a good idea.

Of course, there’s ton of excuses floating around for not getting it: egg allergies (the FDA has approved an egg-free vaccine); fear of needles (there’s a nasal flu vaccine), being so healthy they won’t get the flu (vaccines often work best in healthy people), and religious beliefs (which is so vague, it’s almost the perfect excuse).

This doesn’t even address the irony that these are the same people promoting healthy living and the vaccines themselves. I’m all for personal rights, but when it directly affects the health of other people, I get concerned.

This isn’t about more government mandates or whatever haters want to call it; it’s about social consideration.

No vaccine is ever guaranteed—and the flu shot is one of them. It’s only prevents getting the flu 60 percent or 70 percent or so of the time. But we also know that even for those who get the flu after the vaccine, it significantly slows down the virus.

This debate has as much relevance for me as arguing over washing our hands—which, if you haven’t heard—is a good thing to do, too.


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