“Herd immunity” sounds like the latest promotion night at a Buffalo Bisons baseball game, but it’s something a bit more serious. The phrase is a public health term for the positive effects in a community from people being vaccinated against certain diseases.
The saying “City of Good Neighbors” radiates from Buffalo to our outlying suburbs and rural towns. One way to demonstrate our commitment to the slogan is for all adults — and children over 6 months old — to get a flu shot, which performs a public service. Influenza can be spread by coughing, sneezing or close talking. Anyone infected may be contagious before symptoms are noticeable.
Children under 6 months old, who should not be vaccinated, and adults 65 and older constitute the most vulnerable populations. Babies and older adults are most at risk from sickness and death from the flu, so the more nearby adults in low-risk groups who are vaccinated, the better their odds of not getting influenza. That’s the herd immunity calculus.
The flu is more than just a bad cold and there’s a tendency to overlook the health risks posed by influenza viruses. Last year was particularly deadly. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the flu sickened 49 million Americans and killed 80,000.
A recent New York Times article, by Dr. Aaron E. Carroll of the Indiana University School of Medicine, pointed out that in 1995, the worst year of the AIDS epidemic, “fewer than 51,000 people died of it. … Yet it is HIV, not the flu, that people dread far more.”
This flu season, the CDC says between 9.8 million and 11.4 million have become ill from influenza. That has resulted in 113,000 to 136,000 hospitalizations.
There are many excuses for not getting a flu shot. Some people think the vaccine gives them the flu. (It doesn’t.) Others shrink from the sight of needles. Then there is the alternative-facts crowd that sees a link between vaccines and autism spectrum disorder. The scientific consensus is that such a link does not exist.
Vaccinated adults sometimes still get the flu, if the vaccine doesn’t happen to be a good match for the strain of influenza they are exposed to. Even so, evidence shows being vaccinated makes bouts of flu less severe. Staying in bed with a fever, headaches and muscle pain for a week or more is no fun.
And experts say that this year’s vaccine is so far proving quite effective. Flu season lasts into the spring, so it’s not too late for a shot to be useful.
Healthy adults between ages 18 and 50 are least at risk of getting the flu, but they should consider getting vaccinated as a public service to those who are more vulnerable.
“We know that 80 percent of people who die from influenza complications have not been immunized,” Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein told The News this month.
CDC estimates show that in the 2015-2016 flu season, the flu shot prevented more than 70,000 hospitalizations and some 3,000 deaths. Rolling up our sleeves, for ourselves and for our neighbors, seems like the least we can do.