03/07/2011 08:29 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Flu Shots: Public Health Begins With You

Certain stories make the headlines every year, like updates on influenza outbreaks during the winter months and public health officials urging the nation to get the vaccine. No one needs to be reminded to put on an extra sweater or a warm coat to ward off winter's chill. So why is it necessary to remind Americans every year to get vaccinated? We should get vaccinated for the same reason we put on that extra sweater -- it just makes sense because it provides good protection.

Every year, thousands of Americans die from influenza and its complications, and hundreds of thousands more are hospitalized. Millions take sick days, lose paychecks and can't meet their daily obligations because of the flu. With safe and effective vaccinations available this year, much of this death and suffering is preventable.

Knowing these grim statistics should move people toward vaccination, but vaccine-shirkers continue to play the odds that they won't get sick. Some of you will win the bet, but some of you won't. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is currently reporting that influenza activity is on the rise across the country. The fever, sore throat, extreme fatigue and muscle aches caused by the influenza virus are starting to appear more frequently, meaning the window for protection through vaccination is starting to close.

If you haven't been vaccinated against influenza this year, there is still time to protect yourself. It takes about two weeks for the vaccine to become fully effective, so anyone who hasn't received it yet can still benefit. If you wait until everyone around you is sick with the flu, it is too late.

There's no shortage of vaccine this year, and it is widely available -- not just from physicians, but also at local pharmacies. It's probably easier to find the influenza vaccine than a great --but -- inexpensive restaurant. We don't have the problem of last year, when the vaccine was a red-hot commodity in limited supply. So why, with a plentiful supply of vaccine, have the same people who stood in line for hours for the vaccine last year not felt compelled to put "flu vaccination" on top of their to-do list?

Influenza vaccination is a win-win choice for keeping ourselves, and society at large, healthier. Influenza is highly contagious. And it's contagious before you have symptoms, so even if you avoid others when you're sick, you won't know to avoid them before you're sick. And that means you're threatening the health of everyone who breathes the same air. One person's illness puts the health of the entire community at risk.

This year, the national struggle to revamp our health care system has spotlighted the link between personal and public health. The failure to look at one's own health results in huge costs, not just for the individual and family, but also for the nation's strained finances.

As individuals, we take action to protect ourselves and others at times of overwhelming danger or in reaction to widespread suffering, sometimes when it is just too late. What we should be doing is engaging in activities that proactively assure our own good health, as well as the health of our nation. Such actions need to become so routine that they are automatic.

If everyone took the simple step of getting vaccinated each year, individual and societal suffering from influenza would be greatly reduced as a public health issue.

Getting vaccinated against influenza is a responsibility we have to ourselves and others. If you have already been vaccinated, we thank you, and hope you urge others to do the same.

William Schaffner, M.D., President of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases

Richard H. Carmona, M.D., M.P.H., FACS, 17th Surgeon General of the United States (2002-2006)