Guarding against viral misinformation this flu season

By Joseph P. Iser, MD, DrPH, MSc
Chief Health Officer
Southern Nevada Health District

Dr. Iser.jpeg

As a clinician and a public health professional, I see every day how technology can help providers give patients useful information, better care, and drive better outcomes. As doctors, we use online toolkits to help treat our patients, eReferrals to provide more efficient access to smoking cessation resources, and electronic health records can make everything more accessible for both providers and patients. In my role as the Chief Health Officer of the Southern Nevada Health District, I’ve also come to see what a valuable public health tool technology and social media can be. In our agency, we use Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube throughout the year to educate and motivate our community on public health issues from violence, to STDs, and of course, the flu. We created a new video earlier this year about the importance of the flu vaccine and have a Twitter account dedicated to information about the flu.

The internet, social media platforms, and both mainstream and alternative news sites have made health and public health information readily available. These sources can provide a wealth of well-researched information and data from credible agencies, organizations, and credentialed individuals. Unfortunately, misinformation and rumors are sometimes as easily accessible on these same platforms and can be prominently featured and widely circulated.

Experts and published studies have stated some conflicting views about the degree to which social media platforms influence people’s opinions on everything from immunizations to the political landscape — but no one disagrees that they have an impact. What we do know is that the more people are exposed to information, even false information, the more it will be seen as credible. When using social media platforms, people’s preconceptions will drive their viewing choices, as well as the algorithms used by these mediums.

 This is relevant to us as local health officials because we play an important role in keeping our communities healthy by inoculating them against misinformation. Patients looking for an excuse not to get vaccinated can quickly find a reason, couched in scientific terms, on the internet or use the hashtag “#noflushot” on Instagram to view posts that support their position.

 There are persistent myths that exist about flu vaccine, and vaccines in general, that those of us in public health and health care should always be prepared to address. We never want to diminish or belittle these concerns. However, users should be informed if they have information that is inaccurate and may adversely affect their health, the health of their family, and of our entire jurisdiction.

 We can work together to dispel common myths that circulate every flu season by emphasizing a few simple key messages:

  • Getting the flu shot cannot give you the flu. The erroneous belief that the vaccine can make you sick is one of the most common and persistent myths my agency takes on. It’s also one of the main reasons cited by people for not getting vaccinated. Health care professionals can help to dispel this myth by asking all patients who can be vaccinated if they have received their flu shot this season, encouraging them to get vaccinated if they haven’t already done so, and providing them with accurate information about the safety of the vaccine and its potential side effects. It is important that patients understand the flu shot will not give them the flu. In very rare circumstances, the vaccine, and more likely FluMist, which is made from a weakened strain of the virus, may cause headache, low-grade fever, and muscle aches, but none of the flu vaccines will cause the flu.

  •  Flu shots are for everyone – not just the elderly, sick people, and children. The flu can impact anyone at any age. There are groups designated more at risk for complications from the flu; however, every year people in all age groups are adversely impacted by the flu. It is important that people of all ages, who are eligible, get vaccinated to decrease hospitalizations and to protect those around them.

  • The flu shot is effective. Some people believe they shouldn’t get the vaccine because it is not 100 percent effective, but getting vaccinated each year is the best protection from the flu and can reduce the risk of complications if a patient does become ill. During the 2016-2017 season, vaccination was estimated to prevent 85,000 flu-related hospitalizations. Every season the flu vaccine is developed based on projections about which influenza strains will be most prevalent during the upcoming season. The effectiveness of the vaccine varies each season and for each strain contained in the vaccine.

In addition to myths and misinformation, there are updates to the recommendations and information each year that public health organizations share with their communities. Over the past few seasons, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) has made revisions to its recommendations regarding the use of live attenuated influenza vaccine (LAIV) and for people with egg allergy of any severity. Current recommendations state any licensed, age-appropriate vaccine can be used, and this includes individuals with a history of egg allergy. The full ACIP recommendations can be found here.

Public health organizations are a trusted resource for their constituents. In today’s environment, ensuring everyone has the right tools to stay healthy also means helping to provide accurate information and access to the appropriate resources and tools to support their needs.