SNHD Update - Guarding against viral misinformation this flu season

 by Dr. Joseph Iser  Chief Health Officer, SNHD  Member Since 2013

by Dr. Joseph Iser

Chief Health Officer, SNHD

Member Since 2013

As health care providers, technology has allowed us to have more tools than ever at our disposal. We use online toolkits to assist in treating our patients, eReferrals to provide more efficient access to smoking cessation resources, and electronic health records can make everything more accessible for both providers and patients.

There is no doubt technology can serve to facilitate the care and access to health care information we provide our patients. The internet, social media platforms, and both mainstream and alternative news sites have made health information readily available. These sources can provide a wealth of well-researched information and data from credible agencies, organizations, and credentialed individuals. Unfortunately, misinformation and rumors are sometimes as easily accessible on these same platforms and can be prominently featured and widely circulated.

Experts and published studies have stated some conflicting views about the degree to which social media platforms influence people’s opinions on everything from immunizations to the political landscape — but no one disagrees that they have an impact. What we do know is that the more people are exposed to information, even false information, the more it will be seen as credible. When using social media platforms, people’s preconceptions will drive their viewing choices, as well as the algorithms used by these mediums.

At the start of another flu season, this is relevant to us as health care providers because we play an additional role in keeping our patients healthy – inoculating them against misinformation. Patients looking for an excuse not to get vaccinated can quickly find a reason, couched in scientific terms, on the internet or use the hashtag “#noflushot” on Instagram to view posts that support their position. Health care providers are the antidote to these sources of information.

There are persistent myths that exist about flu vaccine, and vaccines in general, that health care providers should always be prepared to address. We never want to diminish or belittle the concerns of our patients; however, they should be informed if they have information that is inaccurate and may adversely affect their health or the health of their family.

Common myths that circulate every flu season include:

  • Getting the flu shot can give you the flu. This is one of the most common and persistent myths about the flu vaccine and one of the main reasons cited by people for not getting vaccinated. Health care professionals can help to dispel this myth by asking all patients who can be vaccinated if they have received their flu shot this season, encouraging them to get vaccinated if they haven’t already done so, and providing them with accurate information about the safety of the vaccine and its potential side effects. It is important that patients understand the flu shot will not give them the flu. The vaccine, and more likely FluMist, which is made from a weakened strain of the virus, may cause headache, low-grade fever, and muscle aches, but none of the flu vaccines will cause the flu.

  • Flu shots are for the elderly, sick people, and children. The flu can impact anyone at any age. There are groups designated more at risk for complications from the flu; however, every year people in all age groups are adversely impacted by the flu. It is important that people in every age group get vaccinated to decrease hospitalizations and to protect those around them.

  • I got the flu shot and still got the flu/The flu shot doesn’t work. No vaccine is 100 percent effective. Every season the flu vaccine is developed based on projections about which influenza strains will be most prevalent during the upcoming season. The effectiveness of the vaccine varies each season and for each strain contained in the vaccine. Getting vaccinated each year is the best protection from the flu and can reduce the risk of complications if a patient does become ill. During the 2016-2017 season, vaccination was estimated to prevent 85,000 flu-related hospitalizations.

In addition to myths and misinformation, there are updates to the recommendations and information each year that health care providers should be knowledgeable about to share with their patients. Over the past few seasons, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) has made revisions to its recommendations regarding the use of live attenuated influenza vaccine (LAIV) and for people with egg allergy of any severity. Current recommendations state any licensed, age-appropriate vaccine can be used, and this includes individuals with a history of egg allergy. For the full ACIP recommendations go to www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/rr/rr6703a1.htm?s_cid=rr6703a1_w.

Health care providers are a trusted resource for their patients. In today’s environment, ensuring our patients have the right tools to stay healthy also means helping to provide accurate information and access to the appropriate resources and tools to support their needs.