The Fear Factor: Getting Americans to Choose Vaccination over the Flu

By Kim Blake (@kimkblake)

If you are like many Americans, you’re watching the news in a panic because the flu is rampant and you didn’t get your flu shot.  It’s not like this is the first time it’s happened – the flu comes around every year just like birthdays and anniversaries.  But, like a bad husband, many people seem to forget about it every year…until it’s too late. (Note: Some patient populations, like children under six months of age, are not eligible.  All the more reason everyone else should get vaccinated…to protect them!).

While people who have been vaccinated can and do get the flu, your best protection is to get your flu shot every year.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Influenza vaccination, even with moderate effectiveness of about 60%, has been shown to also reduce the following: flu-related illness, antibiotic use, time lost from work, hospitalizations, and deaths.”

Yet, flu vaccination rates remain low.  For 2009-2010, the season when H1N1 became a household term, vaccination rates were 28.8% for adults aged 18–49 years without high-risk conditions and 45.5% for adults aged 50–64 years without high-risk conditions.  Among children, a recent study showed that less than 45% were vaccinated against the flu during a five-year study period.

As a mom and a pregnant lady, I am going to pull out all the stops to protect my child, my unborn child and myself.  But, as healthcare public relations professionals, what can we do to ensure that others do the same?

Some health systems are requiring that their employees get the flu vaccine as a condition of their employment.  According to the CDC, more than 400 U.S. hospitals required flu vaccinations for their employees and 29 hospitals actually fired their unvaccinated employees in 2011.  Why?  To protect their patients from potential exposure.  In fact, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is now starting to require hospitals to report their employees’ flu vaccination rates as a way to boost those rates and will eventually post them to their Hospital Compare website.

Healthcare employers can impose mandatory vaccinations, but how do we encourage the general population to embrace getting their flu shot every fall?  A new game is allowing researchers to study the motivation of individuals to take action such as getting their flu shots.  It found that informing people of their day-to-day risk of getting the flu could encourage them to get vaccinated.

Historically, fear has been the best motivator for vaccination.  The development of two polio vaccines led to the first modern mass inoculations.  At the time, polio’s effects were well-known.  It can cause irreversible paralysis within hours and sometimes death.  More recently, the HPV vaccine was rolled out with a focus not on HPV, but the more fearful cervical cancer, which can result from HPV. 

We don’t want to incite panic, but it is important to remind people of the often devastating consequences of illness.  The CDC produces a variety of educational materials, but they lack compelling messaging.  We tend to wait for the media to deliver these messages when the flu begins to peak.  When it’s essentially too late, since the flu vaccine takes approximately two weeks to build enough antibodies to provide protection.  What should we be communicating in October and November when people need to get their vaccine?

Inevitably, the flu will come and go every year.  Sometimes, like last season, it will be mild.  Other seasons, like 2009-2010 and 2012-2013, will be associated with a significant number of deaths and hospitalizations.  But, we can help ensure that people have every opportunity to protect themselves and others by communicating the risk associated with the flu both early and often.


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