ith flu season almost upon us, many of us will start thinking about whether or not to vaccinate ourselves and our families against the influenza virus.

Last year, less than one third of Canadians got the flu shot. While vaccination rates started to creep up in the early part of the decade, the rates have since dropped again.

The influenza vaccine, or flu shot, is a simple jab in the arm, easily accessible across the country, and free of charge in all but three provinces. Yet, up to 70 percent of Canadians choose not to receive it.

Source: Public Health Agency of Canada, National Advisory Committee on Immunization and Statistics Canada.Source: Public Health Agency of Canada, National Advisory Committee on Immunization and Statistics Canada.

The risk of declining vaccination rates

“The flu shot is something that everyone should be getting every year,” says Dr. Matthew B. Stanbrook, Staff Physician at Toronto’s University Health Network. “Public health guidelines in every province recommend getting it and it’s for a good reason: influenza is really common, it happens every year, and everyone in theory is at risk.”

Declining rates of vaccination have been attributed to people feeling it is unnecessary. But, what many people may not consider is the role of vaccination in building community immunity. In every community there are groups of people who have a far greater risk both of getting the flu and of experiencing grave consequences such as infections and pneumonia.

“The likelihood of older people, small children, or people with chronic health conditions getting the flu is so much greater if people around them are not vaccinated,” says Diane Feldman, Certified Respiratory Educator at The Lung Association. “For those people, complications from the flu can be dire.”

When a healthy individual chooses not to get immunized, they are not just putting themselves at risk — they are increasing the chances of transmitting a potentially fatal virus to some of the most vulnerable members of the community. Community immunity, or herd immunity, is a form of indirect protection from infectious diseases that occurs when a large percentage of the population is immune to an infection, thereby providing protection for individuals who are not immune.

Building community immunity

“Herd immunity is terribly important — it’s what keeps our populations safe,” says Dr. Tom Kovesi, Pediatric Respirologist at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario. “With influenza it’s tough because you need about 80 percent or more of the population getting the vaccine for herd immunity to really work and we’re just not there yet.”

“If you’re not convinced about getting the flu shot for your own protection,” says Feldman, “you should get it for the protection of other, more vulnerable, people around you."