As a columnist, there are a few positions that — though important — are so widely accepted and uncontroversial that writing a column centered on one would feel like a cop-out. I’m talking about positions like “cigarettes are harmful to your health” and “animal abuse is bad.” It’s not that tobacco use and animal abuse aren’t public issues. It’s that so many people have written about them that whoever chooses to smoke or abuse defenseless creatures probably isn’t going to change their behavior based on my column.

I used to think that vaccinations fell into this issue category. I assumed that most people understood the benefits of vaccinations and the key role they play in keeping both individuals and the public healthy. This weekend, I realized I was wrong.

On Friday, I got a flu shot. To me, it seemed normal and routine. The shot was almost painless, paid for entirely by my insurance and took less than a half hour out of my day. So I was taken aback when a group of my friends reacted with surprise after mentioning that I had gotten the flu shot. None of them had gotten it this year. Some thought themselves too busy. One remarked that she hadn’t gotten the flu shot because she “didn’t want autism.”

In 1998, a British doctor released a study of only 12 subjects that claimed a link between autism and the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. The study was widely circulated before an investigation found that the data had been manipulated to support the findings. The study was retracted, and the researcher was stripped of his medical license for “professional misconduct.” Several studies since have found no link between autism and vaccines.

Yet the myth linking autism and vaccinations has self-perpetuated, fueled by fear and anecdotes pushed by both parents and public figures like Donald Trump, who argued in a presidential debate that his employee’s child developed autism after being vaccinated.

Last year, some Michigan public schools were forced to temporarily close amid measles outbreaks. We haven’t seen major outbreaks of measles on campus. But, every year, we see cases of the flu. Part of that might be attributable to the fact that the flu vaccine doesn’t protect against all strains of the flu, and so isn’t completely protective (though, in many cases where the flu vaccine doesn’t prevent the flu, it still lessens the severity of illness.) A larger factor, though, lies in the fact that most college students don’t get vaccinated against the flu at all.

Nationally, only about 8 percent of college students receive the flu vaccine. Despite the fact that illnesses spread easily on college campuses, students routinely fail to make the flu shot a priority. Worse still, the University doesn’t do much to highlight the issue.

The flu shot is available at the University Health Service, but UHS doesn’t do enough to promote the flu shot, or make it acceptable to students who don’t have private health insurance. Most students pay a mandatory “Student Health Fee” as part of their tuition. It covers many UHS services, but doesn’t include vaccinations. Though vaccinations are covered by all private insurance, uninsured students who wish to get a flu shot at UHS are charged $49 by appointment or $25 at a flu shot clinic.

UHS’ current campaign to promote vaccinations — the Campus Flu Vaccination Challenge, a competition with Michigan State — is actually part of a statewide push sponsored by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Did you know that it took place last year, too? Neither did I. The contest is severely underpublicized and lacks general public awareness about its existence. UHS also offers flu shot clinics spread across Central Campus — something, as a junior, I just learned on Sunday. Better publicizing existing programming could help more students benefit from it.  

Additionally, UHS should work harder to educate students on the benefits of getting a flu shot. Discussion of the myths surrounding vaccines, including the flu shot, often overpowers discussion of its benefits. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, getting the flu shot is the best way to avoid getting the flu. And, when students are immunized against the virus, it is less likely that other students will contract the illness.

Some health care issues are a matter of personal responsibility. Getting vaccinated isn’t one of them. It benefits and protects the entire community. The University has a responsibility to keep our campus community healthy this flu season. At a minimum, that will require a more forceful effort to make students aware of the services it already offers. In addition, new, creative solutions are needed to boost campus flu vaccination rates and counter harmful myths surrounding the shot.

Victoria Noble can be reached at vjnoble@umich.edu.

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