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Why the issue with the flu vaccine?

Editor's note: Two health systems in Philadelphia have made influenza vaccinations mandatory for their employees and other health systems are debating whether public health interests might outweigh the personal choices of hospital and EMS employees. Editorial Advisor Art Hsieh says that responders have to take the extra step to get vaccinated as soon as it's available.

Vaccines have been around since the 1950s, with polio being one of the first major diseases to be nearly eradicated from the earth. In the past 60 years, vaccines have reduced the incidence of smallpox, diptheria, and rubella to near extinction. Their safety record has been excellent, by any standard measured scientifically.

So why the issue with the flu vaccine? The flu is still a major cause of illness and death in the States. The Center for Disease Control reports in its March 12, 2011 FluView Surveillance report that 71 pediatric patients have so far died from the flu this season, and that nearly all regions across the country are reported elevated number of cases. Overall 12.855 hospitalizations and 216 deaths from influenza have been reported.

So why do people refuse to get the flu shot? Many health plans offer it; local pharmacies and department stores often provide it for a small fee. Even uninsured individuals can gain access to the vaccine through government-based clinics, nonprofit centers, and other healthcare facilities at low or no cost.

There are a few folks who believe that vaccines will somehow cause a serious condition like autism. Sorry folks, no takers there. In fact, no serious conditions have been attributed to the delivery of a vaccine. Others feel that getting the vaccine will get them sick. In cases where that seems to happen, most times the flu symptoms are being caused by a virus not covered by the vaccine. In another words — coincidence.

So really, what the reason? My guess is, it's not a priority, and therefore not convenient. I admit it — I was of the same mindset. I rarely got sick, and when I did, it was misery for 24 hours and all would be fine.

Unfortunately, I'm older now, and I realized that it wasn't fair to my patients who may have been already immunocompromised who were exposed to me when I was in a subclinical, yet infectious stage of the illness.

And that my friends, is why we have to take the extra step to get vaccinated as soon as its available. Our patients don't get an opportunity to decline our care simply because we have the flu. We should make sure we do the right thing and advocate for the patient, even when we might not consider a vaccine to be important to ourselves.

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