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Researchers say only about half of millennials have received a flu shot, and a third don’t plan to get the vaccination. Getty Images
  • A survey reports that about 51 percent of millennials in the United States haven’t received a flu shot, and 32 percent don’t plan to get one.
  • The survey also indicated that millennials and African Americans were most likely to be influenced by anti-vaccination groups.
  • Experts say millennials may be reluctant to get vaccinated because they have fewer healthcare opportunities, and they don’t get as sick with the flu as older adults and children.

Millennials in the United States are the least likely to get vaccinated against the flu.

The American Academy of Family Physicians says that lack of cooperation coupled with anti-vaccination misinformation may contribute to more than half of Americans foregoing their annual flu shot this year.

A survey commissioned by the physicians group found that more than 8 of 10 Americans incorrectly answered at least a portion of the basic questions about flu vaccinations. Nearly one-third got all of the questions wrong.

For example, Americans — especially men — routinely underestimate the number of deaths the flu causes each year.

The misconception that the flu shot can give you the flu also remains widely accepted, in part because the immune response provoked by the shot can cause short-term fatigue and other mild side effects.

The survey “found certain groups, including millennials and African Americans, are more susceptible to anti-vaccination rhetoric and beliefs, while men are more likely to forego a flu shot — both for themselves and their children,” the association said in its press statement.

Researchers found that 51 percent of those surveyed said they haven’t yet received a flu shot, and 32 percent said they have no plans to do so.

That’s particularly concerning since the 2019-20 flu season hasn’t even peaked yet, says Sharon Nachman, MD, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital in New York.

Millennials (born between 1980 and 2000) were the least likely to have been vaccinated: 55 percent hadn’t yet gotten a flu shot.

The survey reported that a quarter of millennials said they didn’t have time to get a shot, compared to 12 percent of Generation X respondents and 6 percent of baby boomers.

Other millennials said they simply forgot to get the shot.

“A lot of it has to do with not having seen these illnesses themselves,” Nachman told Healthline. “They also know a lot of people who had the flu who did fine, so they figure they can just tough it out.”

Millennials were also more likely to be skeptical or misinformed about flu vaccination.

For example, 61 percent of those in this age group who were familiar with the anti-vaccination movement said they agreed with some of its beliefs. That compared to 52 percent of adults overall and 42 percent of baby boomers.

Millennials were also the age group most likely to get wrong answers on the survey.

African Americans also seemed to be influenced by anti-vaccination rhetoric, whereas Asian Americans appeared to be least affected, the survey reported.

“It is very alarming to see how people are being influenced by the anti-vax movement,” Alexa Mieses, MD, MPH, a practicing family physician in Durham, North Carolina, told Healthline.

“Whether they are young adults or African Americans, we need to make sure that these communities are educated about the importance of vaccines and that they understand the source of the rhetoric they’re hearing. It’s clear they are being influenced by myths and misinformation, and it’s critical that the facts reach them too,” she said.

Mieses, herself a millennial, says the lack of an ongoing relationship with a primary care physician may also contribute to low vaccination rates among her generation.

“Millennials access healthcare differently than past generations, doing so in a more on-demand fashion,” Mieses said, such as via urgent care clinics, retail pharmacies, or telemedicine.

Such interactions are less likely to include reminders to get a flu shot or other preventive care, says Mieses.

Attitudes toward healthcare providers have also changed, she notes.

“In previous eras, healthcare was more paternalistic, and patients never challenged their physicians,” Mieses said. “Now the pendulum has swung in the other direction.”

“They don’t have a trusted advisor, so they don’t believe anyone and say, ‘OK, I will [make a decision] on my own,’” Nachman added.

Mieses urges her fellow millennials to find a family physician in their community who they like, and do at least one wellness visit each year.

That becomes an opportunity to get preventive healthcare that most health insurance plans pay for.

“A lot of my day is spent educating people about vaccines,” Mieses said.

“You have to get one every year, and some years it works better than others,” she noted. “If we had a universal flu shot [that worked against all strains of the disease], more people would get it.”

“I don’t think the anti-vax rhetoric hurts as much as the [uneven effectiveness of the] flu vaccine itself,” Nachman agreed.

Because most people who die from the flu are young children or older adults, millennials aren’t often exposed to the worst effects of the disease, Mieses says.

“It’s hard to envision how bad things can get,” she said.

Even among millennials, however, the flu can be deadly, especially for those with other respiratory issues, such as allergies and asthma.

“Whether you’re healthy or not, you can still have complications,” Mieses said.

Despite their low vaccination rates, millennials were also the most likely to believe in the effectiveness of the flu shot and its protective effects on their friends, families, and acquaintances.

“Vaccines work when a critical mass of people get vaccinated,” Mieses said.

Given their generational predisposition toward community, that’s a fact that could be especially resonant in convincing more millennials to get their flu shot.

“It’s an awareness of your place in society,” Nachman said. “Community protection is a real thing. It means I am as responsible for you as I am for myself. We want to protect our parents and grandparents and young babies. If you’re going to see a friend’s new baby, don’t you want to protect that new baby, too?”