Like millions of other Americans, JoJo O’Neal chose not to get the flu vaccine last year.
“I was dead set against getting a flu shot. And then I developed the flu. I’m over 50 and I have asthma, so it really took me off my game,” said O’Neal, a 54-year-old radio personality from Orlando, Florida.
She also passed on the flu to her sister, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
“This was really scary not only for myself with my asthma, but also for my sister, who has a chronic lung condition. She also passed the flu on to her daughter,” O’Neal said.
With flu-related deaths already being reported this year, health officials are reminding people that the flu vaccine remains the best protection — not just for yourself, but also for those around you.
“Even if you are young and healthy and might be able to survive the flu, there is the risk of transmission to a friend, family member, or other loved one who might not tolerate the flu as well,” said Dr. MeiLan Han, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan Health System and director of the Michigan Airways Program.
Nicole Basta, assistant professor in the school of public health at the University of Minnesota, says that higher vaccination rates protect both people getting the flu shot and those around them.
“When we each get vaccinated, we boost our own immunity and reduce our own risk of getting the flu,” Basta said. “But just as importantly, we reduce the risk to our families, friends, and our communities by blocking the spread of the flu.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that most Americans 6 months and older get an annual flu vaccine.
CDC data shows that during last flu season, 37.1 percent of American adults got vaccinated against the flu. This is down 6.2 percent from the previous season and lower than the previous seven seasons.
This decrease contributed to one of the deadliest flu seasons in decades.
The CDC estimates influenza killed more than 79,000 Americans during the 2017-18 flu season, hospitalized 959,000, and infected 48.8 million.
Ninety percent of deaths and 70 percent of hospitalizations occurred in people ages 65 and older.
But even younger adults were affected. “An estimated 10,300 deaths occurred among working age adults (aged 18–64 years), an age group that often has low influenza vaccination,” the CDC reported.
Health officials also reported 183 flu-related deaths among children, although the CDC estimates the actual number of deaths was more than 600.
The CDC estimates 80 percent of child deaths occurred among unvaccinated children.
Several groups have a higher risk for flu-related complications: children under 5, adults over 65, pregnant women, and American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Chronic medical conditions also put people at risk, including lung disease, heart disease, diabetes, and weakened immune systems.
Millions of people have these conditions, including an estimated 2.7 percent of adults with compromised immune systems due to HIV, treatment for autoimmune diseases, and using immune-suppressing medications after organ transplant.
“These are the people that may ultimately get hospitalized,” Han said. “We’ve already had the death of a young child this year.”
A child died in Florida during the first week of October. They hadn’t received a flu vaccination, according to the state’s department of health.