For the typical college student, the flu is not a huge concern. Many of us haven’t had the flu in a long time, and don’t quite remember just how miserable it can be; symptoms of the flu include fatigue, weakness, muscle aches, chills and much more.
We’re all familiar with the flu shot — each year, come fall, organizations like University Health Services begin sending out reminders to get vaccinated. But why is it so important to get a yearly flu shot?
What we know is that the flu is caused by the influenza virus. The flu virus and the coronavirus have very similar methods of transmission: both are spread by respiratory droplets emitted by infected people, and less frequently by contact with fomites — objects likely to carry infectious disease, like frequently touched doorknobs. Masks can control the spread of the flu, just like they are scientifically proven to control the spread of COVID-19, and have been recommended for flu prevention since the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918.
Additional methods of prevention include staying home when sick, avoiding contact with sick individuals and frequent hand washing — all of which you should already be doing!
On top of these methods, those who are able should get vaccinated. Though most healthy college students with no immunocompromisation are unlikely to suffer serious illness from the influenza virus, the flu can still cause students to miss several days of class, as it’s symptoms tend to feel pretty heinous and can easily knock you out for up to two weeks. In comparison, those who get the flu shot typically report soreness or redness at the injection site coupled with mild fatigue and muscle aches. These side effects almost always disappear in a few days.
Additionally, getting a flu shot early on in flu season keeps the campus community safer. Students and faculty who are unable to get vaccinated due to some underlying health condition rely on herd immunity to stay safe; these people are at much greater risk for complications as a result of the influenza virus. Serious effects of the flu can include the development of pneumonia, myocarditis (inflammation of the heart), encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) or a host of other conditions. The flu can also exacerbate medical problems, such as asthma or chronic heart disease. Complications from the flu can be fatal.
Unlike many other diseases, such as HPV, prevention of infection by the influenza virus requires yearly vaccination. Last year’s flu shots will not give any significant protection against infection with the current year’s virus. This is because influenza viruses mutate rapidly, which renders the previous year’s vaccine useless against the new strain.
Viruses mutate as they replicate — each reproduction of the virus involves copying the virus’ DNA, which presents an opportunity for errors in the transcription or translation of the genetic material that then cause mutations. Harmful mutations will be removed from the population by natural selection, but beneficial mutations have an advantage over their un-mutated counterparts, and therefore begin to make up more of the population.
We are seeing a similar process now with new variants of the SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The Delta variant of the virus is an example of a mutation which confers resistance — this does not mean you should not get vaccinated against COVID if you are not already; the vaccine still significantly reduces risk of illness and hospitalization from infection with known variants.
Getting vaccinated against influenza yearly prevents infection with the new strain, limits the hosts for flu viruses to mutate in and helps keep immunocompromised people healthy. UHS offers flu vaccines for free at a variety of locations across campus. Appointments take just 15 minutes, and can easily be made online. The more people get vaccinated against the flu, the slower the flu will spread, and the more people will avoid infection altogether.