There are lots of reasons to take the flu shot. Unfortunately, most people remember them only when they’re at home in bed, with nausea, headache, chills, muscle aches and generally feeling miserable.
But when workers fail to take their annual flu shot, they don’t just risk subjecting themselves, their families and co-workers to an unpleasant illness. Influenza is also potentially dangerous. According to the World Health Organization, flu epidemics cause three to five million cases of severe illness and 250,000 to 500,000 deaths worldwide every year. In August, British Columbia introduced a policy requiring health-care workers to get a flu shot or wear a mask to protect patients.
Many people don’t understand that influenza is a serious illness, says Paula Allen, practice leader, health and benefits, with Morneau Shepell. A person is usually unable to get up at all and needs two to five days in bed to recover.
Moreover, flu is highly contagious. Sick workers become contagious several days before showing any symptoms and leave germs on the copier, the phone and all the doors they touch. Because the flu virus can live for several hours on a hard surface, others pick it up.
Kelly Stewart, vice-president of sales at Quality Health Services, says the flu also lowers the body’s ability to fight off other infections and can worsen medical conditions, such as asthma. These effects can last up to a year.
Despite these risks, many workers shun the vaccination every year. According to Allen, it’s inconvenience that usually makes them put it off. They may have to book an appointment with their doctor or go to a walk-in clinic and wait in line.
“It’s the inconvenience of getting the flu shot and the time it takes to get it done,” she says. “That’s the greatest barrier. We all have busy lives, and taking time off work is an issue, as well as losing some of the precious time we have on weekends or evenings. And no one wants to stand in line.”
Much of the inconvenience, however, can be overcome by offering flu clinics in the workplace, Allen says. The employer arranges with a provider to come in on certain days and times.
“It makes it easy for them. It takes the inconvenience factor out. You’re already at work, the nurses come to the workplace and you schedule a specific time. It’s just the most convenient way,” she says.
Stewart agrees the workplace clinic is the most effective way to encourage workers to get the shot. Organizations with on-site clinics have a much higher participation rate than those that don’t.
“When it’s right on site,” she says, “it’s five minutes to take their shot, and they sit there for ten minutes to make sure there’s no anaphylactic reaction. And then they’re gone. So it takes about fifteen minutes total for someone to take a flu shot at work.”
Dr. James Talbot, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, says most workers will get the vaccination when they realize they have a responsibility to do so. People who work in medical centres, nursing homes or daycares — that is, with those whose health could be endangered by influenza — must remember they are not only a potential source of infection, which they could transmit to the ones they care for, but also are exposed to infectious material that they could take home.
“So we really want you to think seriously about making sure you’re not a vector [carrier] or giving the disease to someone who could become more ill than they are and could end up in hospital or die,” he says.
“We have to emphasize the importance of staying healthy for work. That’s your professional responsibility to others, to your co-workers and your family.”
While early symptoms may be mild, Talbot says, influenza can lead to coughing, fatigue, malaise, lack of appetite, vomiting and fever. In more serious cases, it can develop into a respiratory infection that may require patients — usually the chronically ill, the elderly and the very young — to be hospitalized.
In addition to inconvenience, Stewart says, people have other reasons for avoiding the needle. Some are allergic to it (hens’ eggs are used to make the vaccine). Many more, however, give it a pass because they think the shot will actually give them the flu.
In fact, the vaccine contains an inactivated, or dead, virus. A person can get flu after getting the shot, she adds, if they pick up a new flu strain. “But their immunity is much stronger than it would be for someone who hadn’t taken the flu shot.”
Unless a person is allergic, Stewart says, it’s highly recommended they take the flu shot.
“Flu affects millions of Canadians every year,” she adds. “Approximately 7.5 million workdays are lost in Canada annually to the flu. They hospitalize about 20,000 people, and 2,000 to 8,000 die a year. Everyone should take the flu shot.”