The Flu Vaccine Controversy

By: Jennifer Chaikin, RN-BC, MSN, MHA, CCRN Executive Director of Educational Initiatives, Nurse.com
Jennifer Chaikin, RN

Jennifer Chaikin, RN

I understand the feelings of those nurses who have been fired for refusing the flu vaccine. I never got a flu vaccine because I never got the flu. After decades of working in pediatrics and after having my kids, I thought I had built up some sort of immunity to childhood and other diseases.

I thought I didn’t need any “extra protection.” I also know that developing the flu vaccine isn’t an exact science (it’s scientists’ best guestimate of which strain(s) will be prevalent in a particular year), and I believed my immune system would do its job if I were ever exposed to the flu.

But my kids received the vaccine. That was a no brainer. I even made my husband get one. I watched as countless colleagues got vaccinated for something I knew I didn’t want or need. Nope. Not me. Somehow I determined I was invulnerable.

About three years ago, the hospital I was working in decided to institute the flu vaccine requirement for employees. We had a specific time frame to obtain the injection (preferred to the mist) from our primary care provider or employee health clinic. Yes, there was some hemming and hawing, myself included. What right did they have to force me to get a vaccine I did not want or need? How could I get around this? I refused often and loudly.

One day, right before the required deadline, I thought about why the vaccine was so important — and why now? Why were the hospitals and many providers making a big deal out of this? Was it money? Patient outcomes? Patient satisfaction scores? Probably all the above.

However, I determined there was something greater and more important than those issues. I asked myself how could I effectively advocate for health and prevent illness if I did not practice what I preached? Because every time (and I’m not kidding — every time) I asked a parent to immunize their child with the flu vaccine, I was questioned: Did you have one? Did your kids get one? Why would you give your kids something you didn’t want for yourself? I got tired of being a hypocrite.

Allergies and religious exemption are legitimate reasons for not obtaining this vaccine, and from my understanding, hospitals allow those reasons. I do have a religious exemption. I keep kosher. The flu vaccine contains chicken embryonic cells, and I would be willing to bet that they are not from a kosher chicken. So I could claim religious exemption (along with my other Jewish colleagues) and be done with it. But every year I choose not to. Mainly because I still have a choice. No one is taking my rights away by asking me to keep others safe.

I must weigh the importance of sticking to my religious dietary restrictions vs. the need to protect myself, my family and my patients. I have the choice to claim the exemption and wear a mask all season (again to protect myself and my patients), work outside of patient care areas, or get vaccinated. As nurses our code of ethics tells us we need to also consider the rights of individuals (including ourselves) to refuse treatment — and at the same time ensure safety, which is the same challenge within public health.

I could no longer be a hypocrite nor self-focused. I finally understood that this flu shot was not about me. This was about protecting others — especially those who are vulnerable. I could not help but consider how horrible I would feel if I brought the influenza virus into the hospital and gave it to my patient, and that patient died.

I got my flu shot those three years ago and have been an advocate for it ever since. Oh, and I still (knock wood) have never gotten the flu.

Want to educate yourself about flu? Check out these courses on nurse.com:

Aging Immune Systems Makes Older Adults More Vulnerable to Attack

Adult Immunizations: Growing Needs, Growing Numbers

Childhood and Adolescent Immunization Update

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