Fighting the flu (shot) frenzy

Declining a flu shot this season is an option for some students; others don’t get a choice

Is a few seconds of pain worth a partial guarantee of a flu-free season?
Is a few seconds of pain worth a partial guarantee of a flu-free season?

As exam season approaches, students need all the sleep and study time they can get. What they don’t need is a case of the flu.

Like many students, Wesley Wong, CompSci ’12, will do anything it takes to avoid catching the flu this winter.

“I can’t afford to miss school if I get sick,” he said.

Wong, who lives in residence, said he plans to take advantage of the flu vaccine, as he considers it the best way to keep himself, and his fellow residents, healthy.

“I don’t want to spread the flu to others if I get sick, because we’re in close quarters,” he said.

But some of Wong’s floormates are more reluctant to get the vaccine. Margaret Frith, ArtSci ’12, is less concerned about the risk of coming down with the flu in residence.

“We’re packed in a lot more tightly than you are in a regular situation,” she said. “It doesn’t really motivate me, though.”

Frith hesitates to get the flu shot on principle.

“I feel we’re being over-immunized for too many different things,” she said. “I mean, we have immune systems for a reason.”

In an e-mail to the Journal, Troy Day, a professor at Queen’s in the departments of Mathematics and Biology, said it’s possible to get the shot and still come down with the flu.

“Scientists monitor the strains that are around each year and then try to predict, based on [them], the likely strains that will circulate the following year,” he said. “It usually seems pretty good, but there are times when it was quite off from the circulating strains.”

In addition to the possibility of catching a strain of the flu that doesn’t happen to be included in the vaccine, Day explained that some people’s immune systems simply don’t respond well to the shot.

“There’s variation in the extent of the immune response that occurs upon vaccination across individuals,” he said.

Day said another factor is that the influenza virus evolves. As a result, each version of the flu vaccine is only effective for a relatively short period of time. “There is likely some protection over a year or two, but this depends on how much viral evolution occurs during that time,” he said. “Generally speaking, they try to produce a new vaccine as soon as it is felt that the virus has evolved too much.”

The vaccine is produced by in many countries, but the World Health Organization standardizes it each year to make sure the strains it contains are the most effective ones. Although they are said to be effective, some students may refuse to get it.

Some students don’t think to get the shot because they believe it’s only beneficial for those with weakened immune systems, like infants or the elderly. However, Day said there could be a better way to look at immunization.

“If we want to reduce deaths, then perhaps vaccinating those at greatest risk of complications is best,” he said. “But if we want to reduce the prevalence of the disease, then vaccinating those individuals that do most of the spread might be best.” However, not all students have the choice of whether or not to get the flu shot if they want to fulfil requirements for their program. Denise Elliott, Nurs ’10, said nursing students can’t attend their hospital placements if they haven’t had their flu shots

“If there is an outbreak and we haven’t had the flu shot, then we can’t go to clinical,” she said. “I think it’s because we’re working with a population that’s most susceptible to having negative outcomes if they get the flu. It’s a preventative measure.”

But even if she didn’t require the vaccine, Elliott supports the idea of a flu shot.

“I think it’s a good thing,” she said. “If you could take something that has the potential to prevent you from getting sick, I don’t see how that would be detrimental at all.”

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