Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Seasonal Flu: Cases and Comments

Each year, influenza infects approximately 20 percent of the population of the United States, resulting in 200,000 hospitalizations and 36,000 deaths.1 Influenza manifests in its hosts with a fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, muscle aches, headaches, and fatigue, though some people also experience vomiting and diarrhea. Recovery times vary from a few days to two weeks, but in high risk groups such as young children, adults over sixty-five, or people with compromised immune systems, complications can occur2. The most common complications are pneumonia and bronchitis, which lead to the thousands of deaths each year.

A vaccine is the most effective form of prevention; it can cut your risk of developing the disease by up to ninety percent, depending on a variety of factors including the effectiveness of the vaccine that year 4. Given the scope and the seriousness of the problem that influenza poses, it is shocking how many people choose to avoid vaccination. According to a representative survey of adults, nearly half of Americans plan to forego a flu vaccine3.

While many people dismiss seasonal flu as a minor hassle, the illness raises important ethical issues. The following two cases and their commentaries bring some of those issues to light, including quarantines and rationing vaccines.
Influenza Vaccine Shortage: The Ethics of Rationing
Seasonal Influenza: The Ethics of Staying Home

For more general information on influenza, see the Centers for Disease Control Web site. [http://www.cdc.gov/flu/]


1. Associated Press. "Officials Say More Should Get Flu Shots." MSNBC, 19 Sept. 2007. Web. 7 Nov. 2011. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/20869992/ns/health-cold_and_flu/t/officials-say-more-should-get-flu-shots
2. "Seasonal Influenza (Flu)." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 15 Oct. 2011. http://www.cdc.gov/flu .
3. 12 Top Excuses for Skipping the Flu Shot Are Exposed. Consumer Reports – Health. November 2008. http://consumerreports.org/health/healthy-living/health-safety/getting-the-flu-shot-this-year/12-top-excuses-exposed/getting-the-flu-shot-this-year-no-excuses-for-skipping-the-flu-shot.htm
4. "Flu Vaccine - Consumer Reports Health." Consumer Reports: Expert Product Reviews and Product Ratings from Our Test Labs. Web. 11 Nov. 2011. http://www.consumerreports.org/health/healthy-living/flu-vaccine/overview/index.htm .
5. Mubareka, Samira, and Peter Palese. "Influenza Virus: The Biology of A Changing Virus." Influenza Vaccines for the Future. Ed. Rino Rappuoli and Giudice Giuseppe Del. Basel ; Boston: Birkhäuser Verlag, 2011.

June 2012