October 23, 2017
3 min read

Experts tackle myth that flu vaccine causes influenza

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William Schaffner
William Schaffner

Physicians are urging their patients to get the influenza vaccine, saying that doing so is the best way to avoid contracting the virus.

However, not all patients will follow this recommendation. Earlier this year, a survey found that 39% of Americans do not get the influenza vaccine yearly, or do not plan to get one this year. A 2014 Vaccine poll reported that 43% of respondents would not get the vaccine because they believed it would cause influenza.

“That’s fallacious reasoning,” William Schaffner, MD, professor of preventive medicine and medicine, Vanderbilt University, and medical director, National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, said of the Vaccine survey. “There have been many studies that have shown there is no association of consequences to the flu vaccine.”

Healio Family Medicine asked Schaffner, who is also an Infectious Disease News Editorial Board member, and Jennifer Caudle, DO, board-certified family physician and associate professor of family medicine, Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine, Stratford, New Jersey, for suggestions on how primary care physicians can discuss and dispel this myth with their patients. 

Be compassionate, assertive

Jen Caudle
Jennifer Caudle

“Be understanding of your patient’s concerns, but continue to reinforce the facts,” Caudle said. “Remind your patients that the flu vaccine is safe and essential for protecting themselves and those around them during flu season. Tell patients while they may experience some minor discomfort, swelling or redness in the vaccination area, that’s nothing compared to the symptoms they will have to battle if they contract the flu.”

Debunk the myth

“Tell the patient that the vaccine is made by killing the virus, breaking it into pieces and then using only relevant pieces to create the vaccine,” Schaffner said. “This process ensures there’s nothing in the vaccine that would allow it to recreate itself to give them influenza.”

Insist, do not just recommend

Just advising a patient to begin contemplating about getting the influenza vaccine is not good enough, Schaffner said.

“We don’t tell our patients with high blood pressure or diabetes to start thinking about treatment,” he added, emphasizing the word thinking. “We say, ‘Here’s the treatment, here’s the insulin dose you have to take.’ Physicians need to be vaccine insisters, not vaccine recommenders.”

Emphasize influenza's potential impact

“I often hear patients say that they don’t think the flu is that serious,” Caudle said. “But millions of Americans get the flu every year, and tens of thousands will be hospitalized with flu-related complications. You need to make your patients understand that the flu is a serious disease that can lead to hospitalizations, pneumonia, respiratory failure and sometimes death.”


Insert humor and yourself into conversation

When a patient says they don’t want the influenza vaccine, Schaffner said, pretend to look astonished, then inform him or her that you and everyone in your family and medical practice has received the vaccine.

“Then get that patient to roll up their sleeve,” he said.

Following these strategies will substantially increase vaccination rates, he said.

“By putting a little humor and self-referential into the conversation, by mentioning yourself, your family and your colleagues, your immunization rate will go from 60% to 65% all the way up to 95%,” he added. “We can do a lot of good with this pretty good vaccine. Research is ongoing to make this a better vaccine, but at the moment this is the best vaccine we have.” - by Janel Miller


CVS Health. CVS Health survey reveals two in three Americans who plan to get a flu shot believe it is the best way to prevent the flu. https://cvshealth.com/newsroom/press-releases/cvs-health-survey-reveals-two-three-americans-who-plan-get-flu-shot-believe. Accessed Oct. 16, 2017.

Nyhan B, Reifler J. Vaccine. 2014;10.1016.j.vaccine.2014.11.017.

Disclosures: Caudle reports receiving consulting fees from Rite Aid as a brand ambassador. Schaffner reports serving on safety monitoring boards for Merck and Pfizer, and consulting for Sanofi-Pasteur and Seqirus.