People around the world are anxiously awaiting the distribution of safe, effective vaccines for COVID-19. Although the long-anticipated rollout has finally begun, the day this pandemic is officially over is still probably many months away. In the meantime, there’s another vaccine that, according to health officials, isn’t getting nearly the attention it deserves in these tumultuous times: Your annual flu shot.
At the height of flu season, roughly December to February, tens of millions of Americans typically come down with the flu. Globally, one strain of influenza or another is responsible for 300,000 to 650,000 deaths a year, with seniors and other high-risk groups particularly impacted. Yet many people never bother to get inoculated — and this year, there may be more resistance to the shot than ever, thanks to fears about catching coronavirus that have kept many people from seeking routine medical care from their doctors or other health care providers.
Public health officials say those fears are misguided. Today’s flu vaccines are safer, more effective, and address more strains of the virus than ever before. Getting a shot shouldn’t involve long lines and hospital stays; in many places, it’s as easy as a visit to your local pharmacy. And getting a flu shot can also aid in the fight against coronavirus in several ways.
That’s not to say that getting a flu shot will prevent you from getting COVID-19. It won’t. They are two different viruses. But getting the flu can leave you in a weakened state, which makes you more susceptible to the coronavirus. Getting the flu vaccine, and thus most likely avoiding serious flu-related illness, leaves your body in better condition to fight off the coronavirus.
In fact, recent research suggests that getting a flu shot can trigger the production of “broad infection-fighting molecules” that could help fight off COVID-19. One study indicated that health care workers who had a flu shot were less likely to contract the pandemic virus than those who didn’t. That data isn’t conclusive, since the workers who got the flu shot are probably more health-conscious than the other group anyway, but it does suggest you might want to follow suit.
There are other, more subtle reasons that getting a flu shot is a good idea. For example, cutting down on the number of people that have to be hospitalized with serious flu cases will free up more health care resources for battling the pandemic — which benefits society as a whole. Also, the whole routine of flu prevention, in addition to taking the vaccine, involves a series of healthy habits that are also recommended steps to take in avoiding the coronavirus: washing hands frequently, staying home when you feel sick and avoiding close contact with others, covering your mouth and nose when sneezing, avoiding touching your mouth, nose and eyes after contact with public surfaces, and so on.
The coronavirus is still a long way from being tamed. But preventing flu-related illnesses, and the possibility of a “twindemic,” isn’t all that tough. For health’s sake, make your shot count.