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Many Americans Dubious of Flu Shot's Effectiveness

Poll finds a third of adults don't believe the vaccine will protect them; infectious disease experts disagree

TUESDAY, Dec. 15, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Less than half of Americans strongly believe that the flu shot will help them avoid the illness, and one-third don't believe it will protect them at all, a new survey finds.

The fact that The Harris Poll turned up so many flu shot doubters is troubling, one expert said, because immunization does offer protection.

"Vaccination can provide as much as a 60 to 70 percent guarantee of protection against the flu," said Dr. Len Horovitz, a pulmonary specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "Why wouldn't everyone want as much protection as possible?"

However, the online survey of 2,225 adults, conducted in mid-October, found that 32 percent didn't think flu vaccination would protect them, while only 43 percent "strongly believed" a flu shot offers help against the virus.

And nearly half of those surveyed -- 42 percent -- thought "people take the flu season too seriously."

Many respondents said there were many other ways that they could protect themselves from the flu, such as: washing their hands frequently (69 percent), using hand sanitizers (37 percent) and staying well rested (63 percent). Other trusted strategies included healthy eating (54 percent), dressing appropriately for the weather (48 percent) and taking vitamins (37 percent), the poll revealed.

Support for the flu shot seemed to increase with age. For example, three-quarters of Americans 70 and older -- a group especially vulnerable to the flu -- felt the vaccine could protect them, according to the survey. However, that number dropped to 47 percent for baby boomers and to only one-third for Gen Xers and millennials.

The opposite was true when it came to alternative remedies, the findings showed. For example, while just 8 percent of those over 70 believed homeopathic treatments could protect them from the flu, 14 percent of baby boomers, 18 percent of Gen Xers and 29 percent of millennials believed these products might help.

Still, nothing offers the protection of the flu shot, another expert said, and the consequences of skipping the vaccine can be dire.

Studies show that use of the flu vaccine "reduced children's risk of flu-related pediatric intensive care unit admission by 74 percent during flu seasons from 2010-2012," said Dr. Howard Selinger, chair of family medicine at Quinnipiac University's School of Medicine in Hamden, Conn.

"Flu vaccination was also associated with a 71 percent reduction in flu-related hospitalizations among adults of all ages, and a 77 percent reduction among adults 50 years of age and older during the 2011-2012 flu season," Selinger added.

"The take-home message is that healthy behaviors and flu vaccination together can make a tremendous difference in keeping people healthy," Selinger said. "And should they catch the flu, it should shorten the course of the illness and reduce the severity of the symptoms."

In the meantime, many Americans do the best they can to avoid flu germs in the first place. The poll found that 51 percent of respondents said they limit contact with children to try and miss out on the flu, while 35 percent said they avoid public transportation during flu season.

Thirty-two percent believe that doors, knobs and handles are most likely to be tainted with germs, followed by phones (19 percent), toilets and toilet handles (5 percent), remote controls, sponges and money (4 percent each).

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about flu vaccination.

SOURCES: Len Horovitz, M.D., pulmonary specialist, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City; Howard Andrew Selinger, M.D., chair of family medicine, Frank H. Netter, MD, School of Medicine at Quinnipiac University, Hamden Conn.; The Harris Poll, news release, Dec. 9, 2015

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