Severe Illness: Not Just a Flu-ke

Laura Trejo, Fall 2018 HeLP Legal Services Clinic Intern

More than 80,000 Americans, including 180 young children and teenagers, died of the flu in the winter of 2017-2018, the highest number in over a decade. Children with chronic health problems such as asthma, neurological and neurodevelopmental disorders, chronic lung disease, heart disease, and blood disorders such as sickle cell disease (all common childhood illnesses we see in the HeLP Clinic) are more likely to have severe flu illnesses that result in hospitalization or death. Children younger than five years of age, and especially those younger than two, are at an increased risk of serious flu-related complications, including worsening of long-term medical problems, pneumonia, brain dysfunction, and even death.

Getting vaccinated is the easiest way our clients can reduce flu illnesses, doctor’s visits, and missed school and work days, and prevent flu-related hospitalizations and deaths in their children and themselves. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that everyone six months of age and older get a flu vaccine each year by the end of October. For children under six months of age, the best protection against the flu is ensuring that the child’s parents and caregivers are vaccinated against the flu. However, common misconceptions about the flu vaccine may dissuade people from getting the flu vaccine or having their children vaccinated.

One common flu myth is that the flu vaccine can actually cause you to get the flu. The flu vaccine is made with flu viruses that are either weakened or inactivated, so it cannot cause the flu. More often than not, if someone does experience side effects from the vaccine, they are minor and typically only last one to two days after vaccination. Another common misconception is that you don’t need to be vaccinated every year. In reality, immune protection from the flu vaccine declines over time, so annual vaccination is necessary to provide the best protection against the virus. Additionally, the vaccine itself changes every year to fight against the specific strains of flu viruses circulating each season, so what may have protected you against the flu last year may not prevent you from getting the flu this year.

Another concern that may prevent people (and our low-income clients in particular) from getting their annual flu shot is the cost of the vaccination. Fortunately, there are many places that offer flu shots for free or for affordable prices. Some employers offer free flu shots to their employees and their family members year-round. Under the Affordable Care Act, health insurance providers are required to pay their insureds’ flu shots without any co-payment due. Medicare Part B covers the cost of flu shots for the elderly, and most state Medicaid agencies cover the cost of flu shots for Medicaid recipients. Many county health departments offer free flu shots to children and the elderly as well. Finally, pharmacies and grocery stores are often the best, most convenient places to receive a flu shot at an affordable price.