Didn’t get a flu shot? You’re not alone, and doctors want to know why

Experts are calling this year’s flu season the worst they’ve seen in years. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have been hospitalized with flu symptoms, and the Center for Disease Control expects the death toll to rise. But most Americans still aren’t vaccinated. Reporter Sarah Wyman has more about the strategies doctors and nurses are turning to… to persuade the un-inoculated.

 

WYMAN 

It’s 5 pm on a Thursday, and I’m sandwiched in between sweaty commuters on the 1-2-3 subway platform at Times Square 42nd Street. You can almost taste the germs in the warm, moist air, and as a train door slides open, a fresh crowd of wheezing, coughing New Yorkers spills out.

 

WYMAN

Most experts agree: getting the flu shot is the single best way of preventing flu outbreaks.

 

But statistically speaking, less than half of the New Yorkers sharing a subway platform with me have actually gotten the shot. Danielle Ofri, an associate professor of medicine at NYU, says one reason is they just don’t understand how dangerous the flu is.

 

OFRI 

You know the old fashioned washing machines where you ran the clothes through the ringer? Imagine your bones going through the ringer. That’s what influenza is like.

 

WYMAN 

And if you haven’t had the flu, getting the vaccine might not feel like a priority. It costs money. Getting it takes time. And not everyone’s convinced it’s effective. Or safe. Ofri says doctors need to make a point of challenging those assumptions.

 

OFRI 

“Oh, and why don’t you want to get the flu shot?” I want them to, like, defend their answer! Why is it they’re not doing it?

 

WYMAN

But it’s harder to ask those questions—and correct misunderstandings—when patients don’t come into a doctor’s office in the first place. Where are they going instead? Google.

 

WYMAN 

Melody Butler is a nurse who knows her way around a Facebook comments section. We’re standing in the back of the Kmart in Penn Station, hemmed in by aisles full of stuffed animals for Valentine’s Day. Butler only has 15 minutes, and this is the quietest place we could find. Little, red notification bubbles keep popping up as she scrolls through Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest.

 

BUTLER 

Here’s a group. It has over 2,000 members in it. And they’ll have questions. Let’s see… is flu serious? 

 

WYMAN 

Butler is the founder of Nurses Who Vaccinate, an online network of nurses who answer questions about vaccines across social media platforms.

 

BUTLER 

Most of our education takes place over the internet. Because where are patients going at 2 o’clock in the morning? They’re not calling their doctor. They’re not emailing the CDC. They’re asking in their parenting groups, they’re going on their neighborhood groups, and they’re asking very simple questions. Like, “should I get the flu shot this year?” 

 

WYMAN 

Butler and her team want to make sure they’re the ones answering those questions. That, when patients go looking for information about the flu vaccine online, they’re finding the real stuff. So far, it seems to be working.

 

CALISE

My name’s Laura Calise, and I’m from Annapolis Maryland. 

 

WYMAN 

For years, Calise never got the flu shot. She wasn’t worried about getting the flu, she’d heard some sketchy stuff about vaccines from friends and when she’d gotten the shot in the past, it had made her feel sick. But in early 2012, all that started to change.

 

CALISE 

I miscarried my second child, and that was whenever my whole perception of risk basically evolved. 

 

WYMAN

Calise spent hours doing research online, and the health professionals and researchers she found there were publishing work debunking some of the theories she’d been buying into. Armed with information, Calise isn’t willing to take risks with her kids that she would take on herself.

 

CALISE 

Because once you know what can go wrong, I think that you’re much more likely to be like “this is a priority!”

 

WYMAN

Physicians like Danielle Ofri agree this is progress. But if we really want to get everyone vaccinated, they say we have to work on access to the shots themselves, not just information. That means getting the flu shots to New Yorkers instead of the other way around.

 

OFFRI

In the subway, stand there in the subway. You think the subway pole’s gross? You can get your flu shot… get your flu shot right here!

 

WYMAN 

In the meantime, I’ll wait for a less crowded car.

 

Sarah Wyman, Columbia Radio News.

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