CWRU nurse researchers work to debunk myth that getting flu shot will make you sick

Elizabeth Madigan
Elizabeth Madigan

Changing planes in Chicago after a recent health care conference became a teachable moment for Elizabeth Madigan, associate dean of academic affairs and the Independence Foundation Professor at Case Western Reserve University’s nursing school.

The situation was used to dispel a pervasive myth that getting a flu vaccine can make you sick—a message sorely needed this time of the year, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports flu epidemics in all lower 48 states.

Madigan’s conversation with the passenger began when she praised her for cleaning her seat tray with a disposable antiseptic wipe.

“That’s a good idea,” said Madigan, PhD, RN, FAAN.

“Why’s that?” the woman responded.

“It’s a bad flu season,” said Madigan, who recently experienced a flu-like virus herself. She then asked, “Did you get your flu shot?”

“No,” the woman said, explaining that she didn’t want to get sick with the flu.

“That’s impossible,” Madigan said, “because the flu vaccine is made from killed viruses.”

The fear that getting a flu shot can make you sick is a common misperception.

Irena Kenneley
Irena Kenneley

But Madigan and infectious disease control expert Irena Kenneley, PhD, APRN-BC, CIC, also from the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing, studied the myth and other barriers to getting immunizations.

Their findings were explained in an article, “Barriers and Facilitators to Provision of Influenza and Pneumococcal Vaccines in Home Health Care Agencies,” published in Home Health Care Management & Practice.

Vaccinations are known to save lives, yet about 30 percent of Americans don’t get a flu vaccine, Madigan said. The CDC reported in 2011 that 53,826 people died in 2010 from the flu, and that older people already battling illnesses are especially susceptible.

“Deaths from flu and pneumonia are preventable with vaccinations,” she said. “We need more continuing education to teach the importance of adult vaccinations.”

To learn more about why people avoid getting immunized, the researchers studied five agencies from urban, rural and suburban areas  recruited through the Home Care Practice-Based Research Network in Ohio.

A focus group at each agency addressed questions about flu and pneumonia immunizations and success rates. The researchers found that many home health care workers also bought into the myth that someone could get sick from a flu vaccine and were less likely to encourage patients to get one.

Madigan wasn’t surprised by the findings because health care training focuses on immunizations for children, not adults.

The study was supported by a Clinical and Translational Science Collaborative of Cleveland grant (UlITR00439) from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, a component of the National Institutes of Health.