Mason Works with Local Health Department on Flu Shot Message

Posted: December 1, 2011 at 11:21 am, Last Updated: December 5, 2011 at 9:28 am

By Michele McDonald

Robin Remsburg, director of the School of Nursing. Creative Services photo

College students can be a tough crowd — especially when it comes to persuading them to get a flu shot.

Say too little and they don’t get the message. Say too much and it’s just hype to be ignored.

Mason researchers are working on finding the best formula to appeal to this savvy crowd of 18 to 24 year olds.

To accomplish that task, Mason is working on two fronts. Mason researchers teamed with Fairfax County for the “Community Immunity” program, a countywide flu shot push, and added a research project to find out why so many college-age adults skip their shots.

A mere 30 percent of this group gets their annual flu shot — the lowest rate among the U.S. population, says Robin Remsburg, director of Mason’s School of Nursing in the College of Health and Human Services.

The flu shot “community immunity” message is to think about others, Remsburg says. Other approaches, such as suggestions to ward off the flu for their own health, have had little effect on the college crowd. Remsburg and her team want to find out if a “community immunity” approach gets results.

“Don’t do it for yourself,” Remsburg says. “Even if you think you’re healthy and not susceptible to the flu, [you could infect] your grandparents or babies or people who have chronic illnesses or disabilities. Those folks are particularly vulnerable. Do it for them. We’ll see if that message, which is a new message, resonates with students.”

Rumors and Misinformation

To find out if that message works, researchers asked 400 Mason students if they were going to get a flu shot and what they think about vaccinations. Students were interviewed at the Student Health Services clinic while they were getting shots or providing Mason-required vaccination paperwork for enrollment. The data is now being analyzed. Another survey will follow in January to find out how the program affected student attitudes about the flu shot.

Rumors abound. Health care educators have work to do to get correct information out there. The survey results will help them refine their message to grab the attention of college students.

“Most of the people who I’ve talked to think that the flu shot causes the flu,” says Therese Prats, a Mason public administration graduate student and flu project research assistant who surveyed Mason students. “And they think they’re healthy and can’t catch the flu.”

The flu shot does not cause the flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People may have already been exposed to the flu before they receive the shot, so it may appear that the shot gave them the flu. It did not. The shot also doesn’t protect against every strain of flu virus, just the top three that researchers think will be on the flu “hit parade” for that season.

Still, misinformation dies hard. “When you constantly hear about it, you think it might be true,” says Zeina Al Khalaf, a Mason communication major and flu project research assistant who surveyed students.

Communicating the Message

How to get the word out is tricky.

“I’m not trusting the web,” Al Khalaf says. “I don’t know what is true and what is not. Everything online is extreme. I’m pulled from one side to another.”

But sometimes too much information creates a backlash. The flurry of news attention around the H1N1 flu soured many students on the need for a flu shot, Prats says. Students thought the virus was more hype than real, she adds.

“If it’s out there too much, it’s too in your face,” Prats says.  “It needs to be more subtle.”

Flyers and posters could be the best way to get the word out, Prats says. The signs in the bathroom that tell people to wash their hands are a good example, she says. The message becomes ingrained.

Messages on TV have become so much background noise. “Kids don’t really watch television these days,” Prats says.

Flu shots have fallen off the radar because so many diseases no longer plague us, Remsburg says. Past successful vaccination programs have given us a false sense of security, she adds.

“By and large, we’re a victim of how healthy our population is — we don’t see the effects of these communicable diseases like Third World countries that aren’t so well vaccinated,” she says.

And many students don’t realize just how bad the flu can be. “When you get the flu, you feel like you want to die,” Remsburg says, laughing. “It’s not something you necessarily bounce back from.”

Any time is a good time to get a flu shot.

“You can get the vaccine all the way through February and March because the worst of the flu season hits around January, February, March,” Remsburg says. “Right now it’s good to get it because it builds up your immunity.”

At Mason, the College of Health and Human Services, Student Health Services, the Communication Department and the Student Nurses Association are working together, along with the Fairfax County Health Department, to bolster flu shot numbers.

Also, the program has become a teaching tool in the classroom. Nurse practitioners in the classroom are looking at how community health campaigns work and how they can be effective.




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