Written by Kelly A. Hogan, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
– For students to find out what misconceptions they have about the flu vaccine
– To learn why the flu vaccine is sometimes ineffective
Activity Description: This can be done as a lecture opener to an immunology discussion or after the adaptive immune system is discussed. Students are surveyed (through a clicker system if available) to find out how many of them received the flu vaccine in the previous or current flu season. They are asked to anonymously write reasons if they chose not to get one. A discussion follows about misconceptions based upon their answers.
Time Needed: Survey and discussion can be completed in approximately 10 minutes.
Materials Needed: Handouts, clickers if available, notecards/paper for students
- Survey your students to see how many of them have had the most current flu vaccine. (If your students are like mine, the majority will not have had the vaccine.) If you are using a clicker program, you can easily survey with this. If you are not using a clicker program and have a class of less than 32 students, you can use the free version of www.polleverywhere.com to survey students and get an instant histogram like clickers (students use laptops or cell phones to answer through either a web browser or a text message). Of course, a low-tech way to survey is to count raised hands!
- Next, seeing that many have not gotten the vaccine, push them to give you the reasons why they chose not get one. To get better responses, use an anonymous method. Have them write on blank paper and pass forward or have them text a free response to the question you might have already set up in www.polleverywhere.com.
- Discuss reasons. Below I state common misconceptions that my students had:
- I hear I can get the flu from it.
- I have gotten the flu from the flu shot. The vaccine doesn’t work.
- I never had the shot and I never got the flu.
- The shot is only for babies and old people.
- I can get scary, severe side effects from the vaccine. Vaccines are dangerous and I would rather get the flu.
Background information to discuss their misconceptions:
(Based on CDC’s flu vaccine information; http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/keyfacts.htm for more information.)
1. I hear I can get the flu from it.
The flu shot is made from a virus that has been killed. You cannot get the flu from this. There is a nasal spray version of the vaccine made with weakened, live virus. While some people will have minor side effects, runny nose or headache etc., they will not have the “flu.” People with severely compromised immune systems should not get the nasal spray, since this is a live virus. This misconception that people will get the flu perpetuates though because someone they know got the flu after being vaccinated (see misconception number 2).
2. I had the shot once, but still got the flu. The vaccine doesn’t work.
Sometimes, people have already been exposed to the flu and are not showing symptoms yet. They receive the vaccine and then develop the flu. (They would have shown symptoms of the flu with or without the vaccine.)
Sometimes the vaccine is not effective because it doesn’t match the circulating strain of virus or there are multiple strains circulating.
“The effectiveness of inactivated influenza vaccine depends primarily on the age and immunocompetence of the vaccine recipient, and the degree of similarity between the viruses in the vaccine and those in circulation. In years when the vaccine strains are not well matched to circulating strains, vaccine effectiveness is generally lower. The vaccine may also be lower among persons with chronic medical conditions and among the elderly, as compared to healthy young adults and children. In addition, estimates of vaccine effectiveness vary, based on the specificity of the outcome that is being measured in the study.” (CDC)
3. I never had the shot and I never had the flu.
There is nothing superhuman about these people. They will likely one day get the flu and if it is bad enough, they will reconsider getting a flu shot in the future!
4. The shot is only for babies and old people.
Everyone 6 months and older should get a flu vaccine. It’s especially important that the following groups get vaccinated either because they are at high risk of having serious flu-related complications or because they live with or care for people at high risk for developing flu-related complications: pregnant women, children younger than 5, but especially children younger than 2 years old, people 50 years of age and older, people of any age with certain chronic medical conditions, people who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, people who live with or care for those at high risk for complications from flu.
5. I can get scary, severe side effects from it.
“Almost all people who receive influenza vaccine have no serious problems from it. However, on rare occasions, flu vaccination can cause serious problems, such as severe allergic reactions.” (CDC). People with allergies to chicken eggs or other ingredients of the vaccine should not be vaccinated.
Correlation does not equal cause and effect. It is understandable that people who fall ill look for reasons behind their illness. Remind students about sample size. Just because they heard about friend of a friend…
The CDC keeps a list of side effects from the flu shot and flu nasal spray in their vaccine adverse event reporting system (VAERS). VAERS data contains coincidental events and those truly caused by vaccines.
Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS) is the most commonly cited serious side effect. “The potential association between the vaccine and GBS has been an area of ongoing research.” (CDC)
“Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) is a rare disorder in which a person’s own immune system damages their nerve cells, causing muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis. GBS can cause symptoms that last for a few weeks. Most people recover fully from GBS, but some people have permanent nerve damage. In very rare cases, people have died of GBS, usually from difficulty breathing. In the United States, for example, an estimated 3,000 to 6,000 people develop GBS each year on average, whether or not they received a vaccination.”
There is much information to read from the CDC about this: http://www.cdc.gov/flu/professionals/acip/adversetiv.htm