Flu season comes every year, but flu fever seemingly only comes every few. This is one of those years, as the nation is once again gripped with such a feverish panic. The routine is simple. First, mayors announce a public health emergency. Then, news organizations seize onto the story, scaring viewers to gain an audience. Parents racked with worry tell us not to shake hands, touch doors, or generally venture outside our homes. Finally, confined inside, us 21st century denizens use Google to seek advice, and Google tracks our manic searches.
So just how bad is this year’s influenza virus? Well according to Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, who was the first to declare a public health emergency, “This is the worst flu season we’ve seen since 2009.” Google’s search algorithms concur. This is the worst flu season in four whole years!
Flu season marks not only a rise in temperatures but also a drop in rational thinking. Luckily, the Centers of Disease Control has it together, rightfully saying the same thing they do every year. “The bottom line: It’s flu season,” said director Tom Frieden. While I do not mean to suggest that sickness is any laughing matter, the mania that has accompanied it this year seems silly. After all, flu season is an inevitability, and the vaccine treatment opportunity is the same year in, year out.
A Wake Forest study published last week on the psychology of safe behavior in epidemics shows that “people’s willingness to engage in safe behavior waxes or wanes over time…when prevalence is low, a ‘self-protection fatigue’ effect sets in whereby individuals are less willing to engage in safe behavior over time.” So with the last two winters being unseasonably warm, it seems as if we have forgotten that flu seasons can in fact be debilitating and that it is important to get the vaccine early.
While many want to talk about the degree of this year’s flu outbreak and try to convince the last skeptical few that the vaccine is more likely to protect one’s health than cause autism, the flu conversation centers on all the wrong issues. We must discuss how to prevent the spread of flu next year and every year after that. If the flu is so predictable, it seems obvious that the public health community, with much of its brain trust here in Boston and at Harvard, should by now have a consistent preventative medical response.
To create a culture around yearly flu vaccinations, we should look to how social knowledge is created. Social scientists have long known the best way to achieve a shared cultural consciousness is habitualization. Consistency in Harvard University Health Services’ preventative approach to the flu in the critical August-December months should be prioritized. Several students contacted for this article expressed that the level of publicity for the flu shot this year wasn’t consistent with last year. Even if the previous year’s flu season was mild, consistent advertising is important. If our medical institutions take a break on emphasizing early prevention even for a year, the Harvard community could enter into the so-called “self-protection fatigue” and forget to get the vaccine. In that case, we all get the flu fever.
Another implication of the Wake Forest study is that lowering the cost of self-protection increases its uptake. Since the vaccine is already free, the most costly part about getting it is the time spent in line and finding the HUHS clinic hours. Of the students I spoke with, those who were athletes all received the flu vaccine because it was both required and provided during their yearly physicals. To make things as simple and uniform for the rest of the Harvard community, any patient given a physical or who visits HUHS for any reason from August-December should be offered the flu vaccine. We would all rather get a shot with our visit than have to stand in another line. It’s also more preferable than standing in the massive lines in January, when supplies are running low and are not guaranteed. The administration should take this and other efforts to make the vaccination process uniform. For instance, a yearly campus-wide email to encourage vaccination early in the fall semester would be much more helpful than an after-the-fact email warning students with any flu symptoms to stay home.
We have a fever on our hands this year, and if we don’t do anything about it, we’ll go through this very same dance again in a couple of years. We already know there will be a flu season next year and every year after that. We know that getting the vaccine early will help us stay protected. Hopefully, Harvard recognizes the predictability of this year’s madness and makes real institutional changes that are consistently anticipatory of flu season each year. If nothing else, let’s remember this aphorism: A flu shot a year keeps the fever away!
Jason A. Gandelman ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a neurobiology concentrator in Eliot House.