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Myths and facts about this year’s flu shot

With the flu season in full force, the CDC is urging everyone to get a flu shot if they haven’t already. 

There are about three months left of flu season, with other strains of the virus emerging, and rates of hospitalizations continue to climb.  

But research shows the rate of refusals is climbing – and many of our readers have cited fears that the flu shot is either ineffective or causes illness. 

Here, we answer the most common questions, myths and misconceptions about this year’s vaccine. 

The CDC insists it is not too late to get the vaccine and it is worth it


A. In Australia, the flu shot was 10 percent effective against the H3N2 virus. In the US, lab tests show the shot to be 34 percent effective.

This year, the US, the UK and Australia have all been hit by the H3N2 virus – notoriously the most virulent and difficult to protect against. It means there are various statistics about flu death rates, illness rates, and vaccine coverage floating around the internet. 

But to be clear: research shows the shot is more effective in the US than Australia. 

It is not exactly clear why the statistics are so different. Part of it is to do with the fact that Australia has an older population and lower vaccination rates, making them less resilient to flu strains. But we are still largely in the dark when it comes to vaccine development.  

Every year, researchers take a guess in spring as to what the next flu strain will be, and they start developing the vaccine, which is cultivated in eggs. 

That means it is possible to miss the mark.

However, even if the vaccine is designed to target every strain possible, as is the case this year, we have never come close to designing a vaccine for H3N2 that is more than 34 percent effective.

Why? Again, no one has a clear answer, and H3N2 remains the most baffling strain plaguing infectious disease researchers.

But part of it could have something to do with our first flu exposure. 

The H3N2 first hit the US exactly 50 years ago. As it happens, the worst-affected Americans are over 50 years old. 

According to a study published by Harvard in 2015, our flu immunity is shaped by our first flu exposure. That strain of flu ‘imprints’ itself on the immune system.

That theory remains disputed, but less so as more and more research seems to support the idea.  

While that’s not the most useful information for immediate action, it does offer an explanation as to why baby boomers (aged 50 to 64) are more hard-hit this year than usual. 


A. Ask any doctor, or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention directly, and they will say ‘yes‘. 

The reason is two-fold. 

First, the vaccine is designed to protect against not just the predominant strain (H3N2) but also the H1N1 (another Influenza A strain) and two B-viruses. 


There are many different types of flu circulating around the world, but four main types are being seen, or are set to emerge, in America this winter.

H3N2 – Dubbed ‘Aussie flu’ after it struck Australia hard last winter, this strain is more likely to affect the elderly, who do not respond well to the current vaccine. This is one of the most common strains seen so far this winter.

H1N1 – This strain – known as ‘swine flu’ – is generally more likely to hit children, who respond well to vaccination. This has been seen nearly as often as H3N2 so far this year. In the past it was only commonly caught from pigs, but that changed in 2009 when it started spreading rapidly among humans in a major global pandemic.

B / Yamagata – This is known as ‘Japanese flu’. Only people who received the ‘four strain’ vaccine – which is being slowly rolled out after it was introduced for the first time this winter – are protected against the Yamagata strain. Those who received the normal ‘three strain’ vaccine are not protected.

B / Victoria – This strain is vaccinated against in the normal ‘three strain’ vaccine, but has hardly appeared so far this winter, with just four confirmed cases.

Having now reached the half-way mark for the season, we are now entering into the second phase, when it is common for new strains to emerge. 

‘There’s still a long way to go, there’s at least 11 to 13 more weeks of flu to go, there are strains still to show up,’ Dr Daniel Jernigan, director of the Influenza Division at the CDC, said. 

‘B viruses show up later in the season, and we are also seeing H1N1 show up in states that have already had H3 activity. It’s therefore a good reason to get vaccinated if you haven’t.’ 

He explained that, while concrete results from lab data on the vaccines won’t be available until late spring, preliminary results collected by the CDC show the vaccine is more effective against H1N1 and the B viruses.

‘There are still probably many weeks to go in this flu season and it’s really not unusual at all to have a wave on influenza A – which is where we are at right now – and a second wave of influenza B activity,’ Dr Lynnette Brammer, head of the CDC’s flu surveillance team, explained. 

‘So even now, it’s still worth getting a shot.’  

There is a second reason the CDC and other health professionals are raising to counter fears that the vaccine won’t work well.

‘Even if it isn’t as effective, that doesn’t mean the vaccine doesn’t have other benefits for protecting you after you get influenza,’ Dr Pritish Tosh, a family physician and infectious diseases specialist at the Mayo Clinic, explained. 

‘The figures about vaccine efficacy don’t take into account how much the vaccine helps to lessen the severity in those who do get sick, which can be significant.’  


A. No. 

‘There isn’t any live virus in the influenza vaccine so it’s impossible to get the flu from the vaccine,’ says Dr Tosh, who specializes in emerging infections and pandemics.

‘There was a live vaccine that’s not available any more, but it was impossible to get the flu from that too.

‘Those who get the vaccine compared to those who get a placebo are more likely to get a soar arm but that’s about it. And in fact, that’s what we want to see, it shows the vaccine is working.

‘There shouldn’t be a debilitating reaction, and the arm should go away within a couple of days.’

So why do so many seem to fall ill around the time of their shot?

According to Dr Tosh, there are two main reasons: other viruses and the power of our own fears.

Flu season typically begins in early December and lingers until March. Prior to that, those who feel under the weather have likely caught a common cold, especially if it’s a particularly temperamental fall, with temperatures fluctuating.

‘We give the shot before flu season begins – in late fall, early winter, when there are other kinds of viruses around but not influenza,’ he said.

‘You are as likely to get a cold when you get the flu shot as you would be if you hadn’t got the shot.

‘And of course, it’s certainly possible for people to get the flu at the same time as they get the shot if they get it later in the year.’

Perhaps more pressing, though, is our tendency to search for a reason for our ill health.

Dr Tosh explains: ‘The thing is, people remember that flu shot. If they come down with a cold two days later, they connect the two in their mind.

‘You can’t underestimate the psychological factor here. It’s hard to psychologically separate those things. We’re wired to make those connections.

‘But study after study shows there isn’t any risk.’

He added: ‘Thankfully this is a vaccine that we give frequently and we know a lot about it and we have done many studies over decades to understand it.’ 


Katharine Gallagher, 27, died on December 5, 2017, in her Tustin, California, home. 

The Boston University graduate started experiencing flu-like symptoms on Thursday night and went to the doctor on Sunday where was sent home with antibiotics.

Two days later her boyfriend came home to find her dead on the bathroom floor after she appeared to be getting better that morning .

She had caught severe acute bronchial pneumonia. 


Jonah Smith, 17, died December 29, 2017, when his heart stopped beating in the backseat of his sister’s car.

His family said he showed no flu-like symptoms except he had complained of a backache, but continued to go to work at a fast-food restaurant and see friends. 

After his death, doctors confirmed that the teen from Arizona had the flu and pneumonia and believe he may have suffered from an underlying medical condition, though he was never known to have one.  


Kyler Baughmen, 21, became sick on December 23, 2017, with a mild cough and runny nose.

The body builder celebrated Christmas and went back to work December 26, but the following day was rushed to the hospital.

He died on December 28 from kidney failure due to septic shock caused by the flu.


Katie Oxley Thomas, 40, of San Jose, California, died of the flu just 48 hours of falling ill. 

The mother-of-three and marathon runner’s condition declined so quickly that she was moved to intensive care, placed on life support and died all in the span of 15 hours on January 4, 2018. 

Her family said she had received her flu shot before getting sick.


Jenny Ching, 51, went to the hospital in Massachusetts with flu-like symptoms. 

After being diagnosed with the flu she developed an infection and pneumonia. 

The mother-of-two died on January 6, 2018, just a week after being diagnosed.







Jonah Rieben, four, died on January 6, 2018, just hours after first showing symptoms, making him the first child to die from the flu in Ohio this season.

The boy who loved to play with his 16 adoptive siblings was born with Noonan syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes heart defects and developmental delays. Doctors are still investigating if his condition contributed to his death.

Jonah’s older brother, who also suffers from a disorder, is in the hospital with a severe case of the flu. 


Nico Mallozzi, 10, of New Canaan in Connecticut, had been sick and bed-bound all weekend during the hockey tournament in Buffalo, New York, forcing him to miss every game. 

Eventually, he was hospitalized and diagnosed with Influenza B, which had developed into pneumonia and caused sepsis.

He died on Sunday January 14, 2018, in a Buffalo hospital.  


Zainab Momin, a third-grader of Montgomery, Alabama, died on Tuesday 16 January, 2018. 

She died in hospital the day her school was closed due to snowy weather. 

More details are pending about her specific case and symptoms. 

She is the first child to die of the flu in Alabama this season.