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Getting Your Flu Shot Isn't Only About You, Doctors Say

A young boy nervously looks at a health care worker holding a flu shot.
Sarah Boden
90.5 WESA
Shark Snider, age 3, waits for a flu shot at the Squirrel Hill Health Center in Pittsburgh. (Jan. 2018)

Summer is winding down, which means pumpkin spice lattes are popping up in coffee shops and Halloween decorations are appearing on store shelves.

It also means flu season is rapidly approaching. 

If you plan to visit your grandparents during the holidays or meet your friend’s new baby in the next couple months, you should get your flu shot, experts say.

“Everyone should get vaccinated,” said Dr. Marc Itskowitz, who specializes in internal and preventive medicine at Allegheny Health Network.  “Remember that you are going to come into contact with a lot of people throughout flu season.”

There are flu-related fatalities in the United States every year. During the 2018-19 flu season, 28 people in Allegheny County died from complications of the virus. 

Despite this reality, less than 45 percent of American adults got the flu shot last year. Some say it’s not effective. Others argue that they never get sick, so they don’t need the vaccine.

But medical professionals say that getting vaccinated not only keeps you healthy, but also protects the health of those around you. That's because when many people are immune to a virus through vaccination, the less likely it is for that virus to spread throughout a community.

It's called herd immunity.

“We know that within a population there will be a subset of patients who either cannot or will not get vaccinated,” said Itskowitz. “However, they can continue to be protected if a percentage of the overall population has been vaccinated.”

The vaccination rate to achieve herd immunity, said Itskowitz, is about 90 percent for the flu. Because nowhere near enough Americans get vaccination to reach this threshold, the 90 percent is an estimate based on other infectious diseases, like measles.

“It is important to think about the people around you  at work or at home, especially the more … medically vulnerable, which are the very young and the very old,” he said. “In any given patient, they may be at higher risk based on their immune system or other medical factors that they may have.”

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.