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Health

Flu can be a killer, but some still refuse to get the shot

| Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018, 1:33 a.m.
A nurse administers a flu shot at Perry Memorial Hospital in Princeton, Illinois, on Oct. 12, 2017.
Bloomberg
A nurse administers a flu shot at Perry Memorial Hospital in Princeton, Illinois, on Oct. 12, 2017.

Latasha Haynes was 34 when she almost died of the flu last year. What started as a little coughing and fatigue ended with two blood transfusions and a diagnosis of congestive heart failure weeks later.

Flu had damaged her heart muscles and the saclike tissue around them. She survived, but just barely, and it took her months to recover.

Haynes, who has a photography business in Tacoma, Wash., and came down with the flu in January 2017, was one of the estimated 30.9 million people who got the flu during the 2016-2017 season. She was one of the 14.5 million who saw a doctor because of the virus, and among the estimated 600,000 people hospitalized because of the flu — 50,000 of whom, like Haynes, were adults under 50.

The last flu season was even deadlier than the 2016 to 2017 season. In a recent report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said flu killed about 80,000 Americans in the 2017-2018 season, the most in decades. In other recent years death estimates have ranged from 12,000 to 56,000, according to the CDC. That compares with about 40,000 annual deaths from motor vehicle crashes.

Yet while nine in 10 people in the United States use seat belts, fewer than half get the flu vaccine — the most important way for everyone older than six months to protect against serious cases of the ailment, according to the CDC.

One of the biggest reasons people give for not getting the flu vaccine is that they don’t think it’s necessary. A Rand Corp. study of unvaccinated adults reported that roughly one in four of those surveyed said they didn’t get the flu shot because they didn’t think they needed it.

This type of thinking doesn’t take into account how deadly flu can be to healthy people, said Flor Munoz, a pediatric infectious disease expert at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston.

“People who are healthy can get severe consequences from influenza,” said Munoz, citing a 2018 study in the journal Pediatrics that found half of children who die of the flu have no underlying medical conditions.

The vaccine protects against not just getting sick but also hospitalization and death. If a vaccinated person gets the flu, they’re less likely to have a serious case that leads to pneumonia, brain swelling, multiorgan failure or other serious complications as a result of the virus.

An estimated 80 percent of children who die of the flu are unvaccinated, the CDC says, and vaccination can help reduce an infected child’s risk of dying by 65 percent. That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics urged parents in early September to get their children the flu shot “as soon as it is available.”

Even with last season’s record-setting 180 deaths in children due to the flu, it’s unclear whether parents will heed the organization’s advice. Less than 60 percent of children — and about only a third of adults under 50 — were vaccinated against the flu during the 2016-2017 season.

Robyn Correll is a Washington Post writer.

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