The Flu Vaccine: Fighting Complacency with Convenience
The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut which allows us to dwell on fears that are statistically less likely to hurt us than ones we ignore. For example, a person may feel more anxious on a plane than in a car, even though more people die every year in car crashes than in planes. In a similar vein, while much recent media attention has been devoted to documenting anti-vaccination groups with regard to the measles virus, flu vaccination rates have not been as frequently discussed. Of course, the potential dangers of a measles outbreak are not to be minimized. But the fact remains: tens of thousands of Americans die each year of the flu according to the CDC while thankfully, no measles deaths have been recorded in the US since 2015. In fact, according to a survey conducted by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID), 60 percent of Americans “[agree] that flu vaccination is the best preventative measure against flu related deaths and hospitalization.” Despite this, the CDC reports that less than half of Americans get the flu vaccine in any given year; it is even possible, based on data from recent years, that this number could be on the decline.
Because college students represent the up-and-coming members of society, public health workers often turn to college campuses to investigate and initiate change regarding critical health attitudes. In a 2017 survey conducted by the NFID, 70 percent of college students in the US reported that they believe it is important to get an annual flu vaccine, while only 46 percent stated that they typically get vaccinated.
Among reasons cited for not getting vaccinated were doubts surrounding its efficacy, confidence in one’s own health, needle aversion, financial hesitations, and fear of side effects. While several of these reasons account for the percentage of the population who do not believe it is important to get vaccinated, others provide insight into why people may believe it is important yet still fail to vaccinate. In other words, there are two necessary avenues of attack to increase flu vaccine participation — educating those who see no reason to get vaccinated and facilitating a more comfortable and convenient vaccination process for those who are merely reluctant. Along these lines, the NFID concluded that some likely ways to increase participation might include decreasing the financial burden and offering small tangible benefits, such as food or monetary incentive.
In September 2019, Yeshiva University's chapter of UAID (United Against Inequities in Disease) provided free flu shots right on the Beren and Wilf campuses to students who presented health insurance information. One student commented that the nurses from Rite Aid were “so incredibly nice, assuring me that it would barely hurt — and it was true!” The student added that they even gave out small chocolates at the event. Surveys distributed to the students who partook in the event provided insight into flu vaccination trends of some of the Yeshiva University student population.
Out of the 111 participating students (approximately half female and half male), 95 percent believed that it is important to get a flu vaccine, and 41 percent had been sick with the flu before. However, 26 percent said that they did not receive a flu vaccine last year, and 21 percent said that if free flu shots were not offered on campus, they would not have gotten vaccinated.
Students’ responses varied in regards to why they may have gone a year without getting a flu vaccination. Among those who reported missing a year of vaccination in the past, the largest percentage (31.5%) said that it was because "there was no convenient way to get a flu shot." Others (11%) responded that they "didn't feel the need." Less than one percent avoided it, respectively, because of fear of side effects, discomfort surrounding needles, or belief that it does not work.
It seems that, at least in the population surveyed, the main obstacle towards students getting vaccinated is not wariness or fear. Rather, it is a lack of sufficient motivation, comfort, or convenience that drives lackluster flu vaccine participation. Of course, this survey population was limited to those who attended the 2019 flu shot clinic and therefore will not be representative of global student attitudes, whether at Yeshiva University alone or in the broader US college student population. Specifically, it would likely not represent the attitudes of students with pre-existing strong opposition to flu vaccinations.
Flu shot clinics such as the ones organized on the Yeshiva University campuses this fall represent a significant stride toward addressing the element of convenience, both in terms of monetary relief and logistical ease. In order to find out if objections to the vaccine itself exist within the overall YU population and to investigate the nature of these hesitations, a more widespread canvassing could be conducted. This would provide insight into whether the student body could benefit from an educational initiative to combat misconceptions about the flu vaccination. It is critical to seek an understanding of our health behaviors and attitudes, so we can implement appropriate changes that will move us forward in a positive direction.
Photo caption: UAID works to make getting a flu shot easier.
Photo credit: needpix