Published On: Wed, Dec 18th, 2013

One in five Americans report having not received the flu vaccine due to fear that it causes flu: Survey


According to a new survey released by the National Consumers League (NCL), fears and misperceptions about flu vaccines persist among Americans—adults and parents of children under the age of 17 alike. With flu season underway and the start of winter upon us, consumer advocates are concerned that misinformation about side effects and ineffectiveness of vaccines may be contributing to a failure to have children vaccinated.

Generic influenza virion Image/CDC

Generic influenza virion

In recent years, the science has evolved on the importance of getting vaccinated for the flu. It used to be the case that medical experts recommended flu shots only for the most vulnerable groups; but because healthy people benefit from the vaccine as well, medical experts now recommend that nearly everyone get the flu shot.

“Getting the flu can be serious, especially to children under 5 and other high risk groups,” said NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg. “In our survey, however, we found the majority of parents of a child in this age group have not had them vaccinated with the flu vaccine.” Despite an obvious desire to avoid coming down with the flu, consumers are unlikely to receive a flu vaccine because of their perceived good health, and the assumed side effects and ineffectiveness of the vaccine. “For parents, there is a disconnect between fear of their child contracting the flu and a failure to get the recommended vaccines to prevent its spread,” said Greenberg.

The national survey was conducted online by Harris Interactive among 1,756 U.S. adult Americans, of whom 993 are parents of children under 18, in August – September 2013.

The survey findings are a reminder that we need continuing consumer and patient education on the importance of both adults and children receiving a flu shot annually. The American College of Physicians, for example, strongly advises Americans to receive the vaccines endorsed by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which includes an annual flu shot.

“A new version of the flu vaccine is prepared annually to best match the strains of flu virus currently circulating; while the effectiveness of the vaccine is better some years than others, getting vaccinated always results in better protection than not getting vaccinated,” said Molly Cooke, MD, FACP, President of the American College of Physicians.  “The flu vaccine does not cause flu in vaccine recipients.  It is understandable that some people regard being in good health as a reason to skip vaccination. This is because we used to reserve flu vaccination for elderly people and those with serious chronic illnesses. However, it is now clear that healthy people benefit as well. In addition, the more of us who are vaccinated, the better our families and communities are protected.”

The CDC recommends that all individuals over the age of 6 months receive the flu vaccine each year. It is especially important for people who are at high risk of developing serious complications if they get sick with the flu, including children under 5, pregnant women and those with medical conditions like asthma and diabetes.  The bottom line is that healthy or not, everyone should be vaccinated against the flu.

“Despite consensus among health agencies and health care professionals that vaccines are good for individuals and communities, vaccinations have, in recent years, appeared to have developed a negative stigma, and this is preventing some of us from doing our part in disease prevention,” said Rebecca Burkholder, NCL Vice President for Health Policy. “This flu season, many consumers will fail to get vaccinated. Misconceptions about how vaccines work are putting all of us at risk.”

Highlights from the survey

Why we aren’t vaccinating

The most common reason for not receiving the flu vaccine among adults who reported they have never received a flu shot was their good health (45%), side effects (29%), and perceived ineffectiveness of the vaccine (24%).

  • One in five (21%) said the reason they have not received the flu vaccine is because they do not believe the flu is a serious illness.
  • One in five (20%) say they fear of contracting the flu from the vaccination is a reason they have not received the flu vaccine.

Parents of children under 18 who reported they have never received a flu shot were more likely to say that the flu is not a serious illness as a reason for not receiving the vaccine themselves (31%).  However, when parents were asked to rate how concerned they were about their child contracting diseases, they were more likely to report they were concerned about their child contracting the flu than any other disease on the list with the exception of meningitis.

  • Parents are more likely than the general population to avoid receiving a vaccination due to fears of contracting the flu as a result of the vaccination (29% vs. 20%).
  • 33% of parents report they are extremely or very concerned about their child contracting the flu.
  • 44% of parents say their child has received vaccine.

Adults aren’t current on vaccinations

While nearly three-quarters of adults (74%) say they have received the flu vaccine, nearly 32% of those last received the flu vaccine a year ago or more.

  • Just over 5 in 10 (53%) parents have received a flu vaccination within the last year, compared to nearly 7 in 10 (68%) adults.

Men vs. Women: Perceptions of how ‘severe’ the flu is

Over a third of adults rate the flu as very severe.  Women are more likely to rate the flu as severe than men.

  • Thirty-six percent (36%) of adults rated the flu as an 8, 9, or 10 on a scale from 1 to 10 where 0 means “not at all severe” and 10 means “extremely severe.”
  • Women are more likely than men to rate the flu as an 8, 9, or 10 for severity (43% vs. 28%).

On self-reported knowledge

Adults who say they are extremely or very knowledgeable about how vaccines work were more likely than those who said they were somewhat or not at all knowledgeable to report they have received a flu vaccine (82% vs. 68%).

  • Adults are more likely to say it is extremely or very important or important for a child to receive recommended vaccinations than they are to say it is extremely or very important or important for an adult to receive recommended vaccinations (91% vs. 75%). 

Where the Flu vaccine is received

A number of adults report receiving flu shots in venues like the workplace or retail health clinic.

  • Nearly 4 in 10 (39%)adults received the flu shot in their doctor’s office.
  • Nearly 1 in 5 (18%) adults received a flu shot in a retail clinic (located in large retail settings such as drug stores, grocery stores or big box stores).
  • Parents are more likely to use/take advantage of vaccinations offered by their employer/workplace (24% vs. 18% adults).
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