How Ebola made me rethink responsibility (and flu shots)


Sooooo, heard about any infectious diseases recently that have a non-zero mortality rate and no cure? You guessed it:

It’s flu season again!

We are scared about the wrong things

This is a story about an evolution of beliefs. Or more accurately, a path toward mindfulness.

I have watched the Ebola story with a moderate level of trepidation. Not exactly panic (like the person who made her own hazmat suit) but not exactly nonchalance either. While the idea of contracting an infectious disease with no cure fills me with disquiet, I fear irrational behavior due to people’s own fear even more. You need to be in contact with an Ebola patient to get Ebola, but anyone anywhere can get Ebola Panic.

But then I read this excellent article in the New York Times, and it had the most salient perspective I’ve seen so far:

“Do me a favor. Turn away from the ceaseless media coverage of Ebola in Texas … and answer this: Have you had your flu shot? Are you planning on one?”

The article goes on to say that the flu kills 3,000 or more people every year. That’s more people than were killed in the 9/11 attacks. Every year.

(Oh, and vehicle deaths are about ten times that. Every. Single. Year.)


All that was good perspective for me, of course, but there was another kicker: I never get a flu shot.

Historically, if you were to ask me why, my reasoning was a combination of a dislike of doctors/needles, inertia, and just a desire not to think about it.

But the problem great thing with giving advice is that it forces you to be especially vigilant about your own motivations and intentions. And for the first time in years, perhaps ever, I’ve found myself forced to question my beliefs and actions on flu shots.

Given my role, I can make a very strong analogy to finances. I know many people with whom, when I talk about taking control of your finances, will say one of “I don’t want to think about it“, “I hate money / budgets“, or “I know I should but I never get around to it.” I wouldn’t let anyone get away with any of these rationales, so why would I let myself off the hook for the same?

Flu shot 101

So I’ve done some research, and I found that those who put forth arguments against the flu shot tend to say the same things:

  • It doesn’t work
  • It will make you sick
  • It contains toxic chemicals
  • It enriches doctors/pharmaceutical companies
  • You can’t trust the CDC

The problem is that all of these are actually refutable:

  • True, but it could work.
  • It no longer contains the flu virus, so you can’t get the flu from it. (Yes, the flu shot used to contain the flu virus, but not anymore.)
  • The fish you had for dinner last night likely has more mercury than the flu shot does. There are toxins in your water bottle. Until you prove causation, it’s just fearmongering to talk about “toxins.”
  • There’s apparently very little profit motive in the flu shot, and many companies have stopped making it because of this.
  • The CDC may be incompetent, but I don’t believe in conspiracy theories. And personally, I side with the CDC on the benefits of community water fluoridation (please please please let’s not hijack this discussion though) so it would be a bit hypocritical to trust them in one case, but not in the other.

Now, I’m (knock-on-laptop) a healthy person, and even if I got the flu, I’m unlikely to get sidelined by it, at least for very long. So why bother?

Here’s why: You don’t get the flu shot for you; you get the flu shot for everyone else.

You may get the flu at some point. Hell, I might have gotten the flu every year for all I know, and just have shrugged it off. (Did you know that 1/3 of people with the flu are asymptomatic? Viruses are very unfair in this manner.) But someone may get the flu from you. And this person may not have the same immune system you do. They may get very sick, even perhaps die.

Do you still “not want to think about it?”

It’s not all about you

The lesson here is that our actions (or inactions) affect others in our community, and therefore, we must take others into account as best we can. Doing our best interpretation of an ostrich and putting our head in the sand is indefensible.

So I just sent a note to my doctor asking to set up an appointment. It’s high time I do that anyway, and I’ve been avoiding it for too long.

But enough about me: Do you get a flu shot? Do you think about the community ramifications of doing so (or not doing so)?


  1. Steveo

    Teaching 500 kids will make you rethink flu shots real fast. Like real fast. 😉

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