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Flu Shot Helps Reduce Severity of Symptoms If You Still Get Sick

A young pregnant mother receives a shot in her left arm to prevent pertussis in future child.
James Morrison

You may have have heard that last year's flu vaccine was a little less effective than usual, but state health officials say that's no excuse to skip the vaccine this year. Studies show getting vaccinated not only helps prevent the spread of the disease, it also reduces the severity of illness in people who are vaccinated but still get sick.

The number of people who got the flu vaccine was down last flu season in North Carolina and the nation. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), North Carolina's vaccination rate dropped 4 percentage points last year. Only 46 percent of people in the state were vaccinated last winter, down from 50.8 percent in the previous flu season. That combined with a slightly less effective vaccine made for a particularly deadly flu season, with 400 North Carolinians dying from the flu or flu-related causes.

State Epidemiologist Zack Moore says that's a strong warning to get vaccinated this year. He says not to be discouraged by the effectiveness rating of last year's vaccine. The CDC reports that the effectiveness of each year's vaccine since 2004 has ranged from 10 percent to 60 percent effective. The 2017 vaccine proved 40 percent effective.

"Those numbers of flu vaccine effectiveness, those just measure the likelihood of getting infected," explained Moore. "There's also a lot of benefits against hospitalization, against death, against severe illness that don't get factored in and are really important reasons to get vaccinated."

The CDC reports that two recent studies show getting the vaccine helps reduce the severity of illness in people who get the flu anyway. Vaccinated flu patients tend to have shorter hospital stays and are less likely to be admitted to an Intensive Care Unit or die.

"We just had a study out this year in pregnant women that showed that getting a flu vaccine decreased their risk of hospitalization by 40 percent," Moore said.

The CDC reports that pregnant women who get vaccinated can also pass that protection on to their newborn, who might be too young to be vaccinated if he or she is born during flu season. Babies, children and older adults are all especially vulnerable to the flu.
Getting vaccinated also helps to prevent the spread of the disease to others who may be more likely to become hospitalized or die from the disease.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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