Why Aren’t College Students Getting Flu Shots?
To highlight the importance of annual influenza (flu) vaccination, the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) is hosting a 2017 National Influenza Vaccination Week (NIVW) blog relay, featuring a daily guest post from an immunization champion/organization.
Special thanks to NFID board member Lisa S. Ipp, MD, associate professor of Clinical Pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medicine and associate director of Adolescent Medicine at New York-Presbyterian Komansky Children’s Hospital for this guest post about flu prevention on college campuses.
We have long known that college students are at a particularly high risk of getting, and spreading, flu viruses because of frequent exposure to high-touch areas and participation in social activities. Yet, on US college campuses, flu vaccination rates remain strikingly low, falling significantly short of the 70 percent Healthy People 2020 goal. To address these suboptimal flu vaccination rates, we first need to understand the challenges in motivating college students to think critically about flu prevention.
In 2016, NFID published a report, Addressing the Challenges of Influenza Vaccination on US College Campuses, highlighting the challenges associated with flu prevention on college campuses. The report was based on discussions at a Summit convened by NFID, to include the perspectives of a wide range of stakeholders representing academia, student organizations, professional medical associations, patient advocacy groups, and industry. While there was consensus that no one-size-fits-all solution will increase vaccination uptake among US college students, there was equal recognition that best practices do exist. We just need to harness what is working well and disseminate that knowledge more broadly.
As a first step, we felt that it was important to hear from college students directly about their attitudes toward flu vaccination. To do so, NFID commissioned a national online survey* conducted by Harris Poll this fall among 1,005 US undergraduate students 18-24 years of age. Interestingly, the survey results suggested that a combination of education, access, and incentives may be most influential in getting college students to think differently about flu vaccination. Specifically, the survey showed:
- Misperception and fear are key barriers to flu vaccination. Among students who do not typically get a flu vaccine, 36% say that they are healthy and don’t need it; 31% say they don’t like needles; and 30% say they don’t think the vaccine works. Additionally, nearly three in five students (59%) seem to think that the flu vaccine can cause flu and 59% don’t think it’s likely they’ll get the flu in the next 12 months.
- Making flu vaccines more accessible may increase the likelihood of vaccination. More than three in five students (61%) believe that access to the flu vaccine at low (or no) cost would significantly increase college students’ likelihood of getting vaccinated. Nearly half (48%) said the same about having the vaccine available in multiple locations on campus.
- Providing incentives may be one of the best ways to increase participation in flu vaccination programs. More than three in five students (61%) say that a monetary or other incentive would significantly affect the likelihood of them getting the vaccine. Furthermore, students said that free food (31%) and a big campus event with free food and music/entertainment (26%) would be most effective at encouraging more students to get the flu vaccine. Among those who do not typically get the flu vaccine, 49% agreed that the only thing that would motivate them to get vaccinated would be a tangible incentive (e.g., cash, gift card, free food, etc.)
Many of the survey findings confirm what we have anecdotally heard from students and college health services personnel. In order to help drive improvements in flu vaccination efforts on campus, NFID is working with academic, health, advocacy, and student leaders to share the survey results and disseminate best practices designed to dispel misconceptions through ongoing education and public outreach efforts.
Through our collective efforts, we truly believe that we can build a future where college students recognize their risk for influenza, are motivated to get vaccinated annually, and feel empowered to build healthy habits for a lifetime.
*The survey was conducted online by Harris Poll on behalf of NFID within the US between October 12 and 31, 2017 among 1,005 US college students ages 18-24 who are currently attending a 2-year or 4-year college or university. Figures for age, gender, race/ethnicity, region, household income, household size, and enrollment status were weighted where necessary to bring them in line with their actual proportions in the population.
Be sure to check NFID News each day during #NIVW to view guest blog posts, including the upcoming post about the tragic loss of a healthy young adult to flu.