flu season

I’m Not Sure We’re Afraid Enough of the Flu

Photo: Peerawat Kamklay/Getty Images

A group of doctors seeking to provide free flu shots to detained migrants were reportedly ignored by the Trump administration this week. After being turned away, the doctors vowed to protest the decision at several Border Patrol stations and the San Diego border agency office until officials let them in. Dr. Marie DeLuca, an emergency physician who traveled from New York City, told Newsweek that Trump’s decision to ignore doctors’ request was “intentional cruelty.” At least three migrant children have died from the flu while in custody at the border.

Another emergency medicine physician at the border, Dr. Hannah Janeway, told the Guardian: “More people will die without the vaccine. There’s no doubt. They are being locked in cages in cold weather together, without any vaccination, in a year that is supposed to bring a horrible flu epidemic.”

The flu is incredibly common: the CDC estimates that in the 2019 flu season so far — between October 1 and November 30 alone — 1.7 million to 2.5 million people in the U.S. have become sick with the flu. The flu is also deadly: the CDC reports that between 910 and 2,400 people died from the flu in that two-month period alone, and another 16,000–29,000 people were hospitalized.

In more recent reports, the CDC warns that “widespread” flu activity was reported by health departments in 46 states. Furthermore, the percentage of patients showing up to the doctor with flu symptoms has nearly matched the 2017-2018 flu season peak. That season was the most severe in a decade.

Early reports also suggest that this season’s flu is unusual for peaking earlier than normal (December rather than February), and for being driven by an influenza B strain, which is most often detected in children. Because the B strain has been rarer in recent years, experts say, there may be less immunity in the population overall. Still, while experts warn that this year’s flu shots may be less effective against this strain, they insist it’s still important to get one, if you haven’t: people who get the shot and still get the flu get less sick than those who don’t get the shot.

To not get your flu shot if you are able and eligible is stupid and selfish. To deny doctors their request to give badly treated and helpless children the flu shot is inhumane.

Healthy people get the flu shot for themselves, but perhaps more importantly, they get the flu shot for people who are vulnerable — people who are more at risk of dying of the flu, who become all the more likely to catch the flu when the healthy people around them don’t do their part. Health insurance is meant to work similarly: If we’re healthy, we pay a little now (in theory — if things worked as they should), while we’re well, on behalf of people who are sick now, and also for our future, sicker selves.

There is no good reason to not get a flu shot if you are able to afford it (flu shots without insurance can cost $30–45), and particularly if you are insured, or your employer offers them for free. The flu vaccine will not give you the flu. It might make your arm a little sore for a few days, and in rare cases, you might feel crappy and achy for a day or two. This does not and cannot compare to the potential severity of the actual flu. And getting the flu shot makes it much, much less likely that you will get the flu — and further reduces the chance of being hospitalized, or dying, from it.

Perhaps because the flu is so common, so quotidian, we tend to minimize its pandemic-level potential. The “Spanish” flu of 1918 and 1919 killed between 50 and 100 million people, and infected one third of the world’s population. There is strong reason to believe this can happen again. As Dr. Greg Poland, a virologist and vaccine researcher with the Mayo Clinic told the Chicago Tribune last year, the question is not if another deadly flu pandemic will happen, but when: “I’ve learned after 30 years of studying this virus is there’s next to nothing predictable about it, and when you begin to feel comfortable, you’re well on the road to bad things happening.”

At least 24 people have died in ICE custody this year, due to negligence, cruelty, and most recently, failure to treat the flu. After a  16-year-old Guatemalan migrant named Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez was diagnosed with a 103-degree fever and the flu, he was left alone in a cell to die. ProPublica reports that officials quarantined Vasquez because they were worried he would infect other people being held captive.

Allowing doctors to vaccinate migrants at the border is the way to prevent those migrants from being infected with the flu. Not one way — the way. The same is true for the rest of us. To reduce flu casualties and infections — to prevent a vast and lethal flu epidemic — we should take the flu seriously. That means everyone able to should act accordingly, and get a flu shot.

This post has been updated.

I’m Not Sure We’re Afraid Enough of the Flu