Friday takeaway: Flu shots

  • Naomi Shulman is shown May 31, 2017 in her Northampton home.

Published: 10/25/2018 3:39:32 PM

A couple weeks ago, several people posted a particular meme to my Facebook page. “This was made for you” was their consensus. The meme in question? It was basically a mashup of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and flu shots.

My friends know me well. I’m that person — not only do I worship the Notorious RBG, but I’m also the buttinsky who, every fall, like clockwork, pushes my friends to get a flu shot. Which reminds me: Have you gotten yours yet?

I wasn’t always quite so bold. Seventeen years ago, back in Pulaski Park’s scruffier days, I recall sitting on a park bench with a friend and our young babies in the late spring sun. These children were our first, and they weren’t even six months old. Vaccinations were front of mind; babies get a lot of doctor checkups, and pretty much every time you go in, a nurse comes into the exam room wielding a hypodermic needle. At least, that had been my experience here in the states. But my friend was schooling me. “It was in The Lancet,” she said — the premier British medical journal. “They found a link between the measles shot and autism.” She jiggled her baby affectionately and pulled her in a little closer. “No way I’m going to inject that stuff into my kid.”

That article turned out to be fraudulent. Its findings were completely debunked, The Lancet published a retraction, and the main researcher has been run out of the medical community — but Pandora’s box had been opened. Certain residents behind the Tofu Curtain view conventional medicine with suspicion, and this was the first of many such conversations I’ve had. I am sorry to tell you that I shrugged and said nothing. Who was I to tell my friends what to do, I figured? Other parents had a right to make their choices — they wouldn’t affect me, right?  I continued to vaccinate my children according to the schedule their pediatrician recommended. And that was that. I was quiet. For a while.

As time went by, though, I learned more about herd immunity. That’s the phenomenon in which vaccines protect not only a single person, but rather an entire community — if enough people get the shots, that is — thereby protecting not only to those who have received the shot but also those who cannot receive it. I read Eula Biss’s short (and exquisite) layperson’s take, On Immunity. I started to get noisier, raising my voice a little when I saw misinformation online. And then? Then I started getting  notices from my kids’ school that someone or another had pertussis or chicken pox or something else scary and preventable. Soon I morphed into a bona fide loudmouth on the subject.

I know I’ve turned off more than a few people on social media. But I can’t seem to stop, even though research shows that when faced with evidence that counter their deeply held beliefs, people aren’t usually swayed — in fact, they dig in. “Countering misinformation directly can actually reinforce false beliefs,” explained said researcher Allison Kempe, MD, MPH, last April. “Few randomized trials have successfully changed what people think and feel about vaccines, and those few that succeeded were minimally effective in increasing uptake.” I know conversations about vaccination on social media don’t change many minds. So am I wasting my breath?

Not quite. There are, apparently, ways to make one’s point without causing others to “turn off their ears,” as one of my friends put it. Dr. Kempe continued: “It is best to state clearly and often what is true in a way that matches people's intuitive beliefs rather than directly countering their beliefs." This turns out to hold true in other conversations besides the perennial vaccine debate. What’s the old saying? You catch more flies with honey. (“Why does anyone want FLIES, though?” my daughter once retorted.)

So, this is where Ruth Bader Ginsburg comes in. Those of us who feel passionately about the importance of your being vaccinated may be buttinskys, but we’re not just thinking about you. We’re thinking of your neighbors who are newborns, or on immunosuppressants, or those with Guillain-Barre syndrome, or...octogenarian Supreme Court justices.

That meme I mentioned? It was a drawing of the honorable — and, let’s face it, really old — judicial hero, with the following tagline: “The people we protect when we get flu shots include…” Maybe you don’t think you need a flu shot. Maybe you don’t know anyone personally who you think deserves your protection. But now more than ever, many of us are aware of how delicate our social fabric really is — and part of contributing to the welfare of our world is making sure we’re not harming those around us, even unintentionally. I’m not going to tell you to protect yourself. If you don’t fear the flu (although everyone should!), count yourself lucky. Then consider the people who around you who do fear it, with excellent reason, and act accordingly.

Yes, I’m that friend. And, it turns out, I’m that columnist, the one who gets the tiniest bit bossy, but it’s because I love you. Get your shots, people. Do it for yourself. Do it for your neighbors. Do it for me! And if all else fails, do it for Ruth.

Naomi Shulman’s work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Yankee Magazine, as wellm as on NEPR and WBUR. Follow her on Twitter:


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