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U.S. health officials are urging Americans to get the flu vaccine to prevent hospitals already busy fighting COVID-19 from being overwhelmed this winter, but false claims threaten their efforts.

Misinformation on social media, especially that getting a flu shot increases your risk of contracting the coronavirus or causes you to test positive for COVID-19 – it won’t – undermines the public health message.

A false claim spread on Facebook and Instagram said that getting a flu shot would increase the chances of getting COVID-19 infection by 36 percent. Another on Instagram said Sanofi’s flu vaccine Fluzone was 2.4 times more deadly than COVID-19.

A national study by the University of Michigan found that one in three parents plans to skip the flu vaccine for their children this year, with mothers and fathers citing misinformation including the belief that it is not effective as the reason.

“Primary care providers are really playing an important role this flu season,” said Sarah Clark, a research fellow at Michigan Medicine Child Health Evaluation and Research Center who led the study.

“You need to send a clear and strong message to parents about the importance of the flu vaccine.”

As daily COVID-19 infections rise to record levels in several US states, incorrect information remains an obstacle to vaccinating people.

Jeanine Guidry, an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies health news on social media, said, “There is so much misinformation out there about COVID and I really believe this is spreading to the flu.”

Amelia Jamison, a misinformation researcher and PhD student at Johns Hopkins University, agreed.

“The flu is implicated in some of the narratives we see about the coronavirus,” she said.

The vaccination hobbled in 2020

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), only 49.2 percent of people received a flu vaccine in the 2018-19 season.

Misinformation aside, measures taken to contain the spread of COVID-19 have resulted in fewer personal preventive doctor visits, with many receiving the vaccine. Other flu protection clinics normally offered by employers, churches or schools have been postponed.

The high unemployment caused by the economic fallout from the pandemic has also left millions of Americans without health insurance, which means states must pay vaccination costs for more patients.

While the effectiveness of the flu shot can vary depending on whether the strain of flu circulating in communities matches the strain in the vaccine, the CDC says it prevents millions of diseases each year.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the vaccine for all children over six months of age.

Influenza vaccine expert Danuta Skowronski of the British Columbia Center for Disease Control said, “We have not seen an association between receiving the influenza vaccine and coronavirus risk in either children or adults.”

Social media response

While social media platforms contain misinformation, they also take steps to disseminate reliable vaccine guidelines.

This week, Facebook announced that it would alert US users to information about where to get a flu shot and promised to decline ads discouraging vaccinations.

Prior to the pandemic, Twitter and Pinterest introduced guidelines to direct searches for certain vaccine-related keywords to public health organizations.

However, Adam Dunn, director of Biomedical Informatics and Digital Health at the University of Sydney, said more can be done.

Techniques designed to encourage user engagement on social media “could be more sensibly used to guide people to credible and evidence-based information,” Dunn said.

He also advocated the creation of more “vaccine advocacy communities that are welcoming, honest, and cater to a variety of worldviews”.

Libby Richards, associate professor at the Purdue School of Nursing, said that “getting a flu shot this year is more important than ever,” warning that severe cases of COVID-19 and flu require the same life-saving equipment.

“Receiving the flu vaccine will not only protect personal health, but will also help reduce the burden of respiratory disease on our already overstretched health system.”

Richards encouraged people to take the time to review information.

“There are many myths about the flu vaccine that, with a little bit of background, can be clearly refuted,” she said.

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© 2020 AFP

Quote: As the US battles COVID-19, the flu vaccination (2020, October 17) spreads from October 17, 2020 at https://medicalxpress.com/news/2020-10-covid-flu-shot-misinfo.html

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