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She says she would like her children to naturally fight colds and flu and thus make their immune system stronger.

How do I convince her against this irrational thinking?

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  • 54
    Are you sure your wife actually understands what influenza really is? There’s a rather irritating tendency among English speakers to call anything with symptoms vaguely similar to influenza ‘the flu’, resulting in a lot of people seriously underestimating the actual danger of influenza because most stuff that gets called ‘the flu’ is in fact far more mild than the average influenza case. May 6 at 11:45
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    Fun fact: The measures to contain COVID-19 also had the unintentional but fortunate side-effect that they drastically reduced the spread of influenza around the globe. However, influenza is far from eradicated. So when the COVID-19 containment measures are over, it will likely come back.
    – Philipp
    May 6 at 12:49
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    Our pediatrition refused to vaccine the kids against influenca, since it is not recommended.
    – lalala
    May 6 at 17:43
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    @VladimirF Different country.
    – lalala
    May 6 at 18:10
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    If the other parent in my couple came to me with this attitude : "How do I convince her against this irrational thinking?" I would double-down even if my thinking was actually irrational. First step: call it "different view", "different choice" or "reconciliating different priorities". It definitely will not hurt.
    – Jeffrey
    May 7 at 11:56
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It's possible your wife is mixing the Hygiene Hypothesis with vaccinations. They're unrelated; the Hygiene Hypothesis is related specifically to children getting a particular virus (RSV) before they are exposed to various bacteria that train their immune system to respond a certain way to a particular immune "switch". Vaccinations are unrelated to that.

If your wife is concerned with general immunity, as in immunity to things other than the flu, she shouldn't worry; the influenza vaccine preps your body for influenza, but does not affect immunity to other pathogens (for better or worse). And beyond that, the influenza vaccine is not aimed at all influenza strains - just the 4 or so most deadly, or at least the ones that year the CDC/etc. think are most dangerous. The "general" immune stimulation will be present one way or the other; plenty of other pathogens will be there, unless your child lives in a bubble.

The flu vaccine, moreover, is not primarily to protect your child. The flu vaccine is to protect society - and is particularly important in children because they are very effective spreaders of influenza. It's protecting your child's parents, your child's teachers, your child's grandparents - in addition to protecting your child.

It's not unreasonable to think that immunity from a vaccine and immunity from a pathogen might be different, and might have different impacts on future immunity. Immune memory develops in many different ways with many different stimuli, and cross-linkage in particular can make a big difference in the duration of immune memory. Fortunately, there was a study of exactly this; they found that people who had yearly flu vaccines were more resistant to influenza than people who did not.

Further, even if the "wild" immune reaction were better than the vaccine at producing immunity to future influenza infections, that comes at a significant cost. A child who has influenza will lose several days of school, will lose weight, will spend days or weeks fighting off influenza instead of growing - see this article on growth failure from repeated infection for an extreme example.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Rory Alsop
    May 10 at 17:21
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and thus make their immune system stronger

But that's exactly what vaccination does! It injects (weakened) viruses together with an adjuvant (which puts the immune system on high alert) to trigger an immune reaction and train the immune system in fighting off the virus! Giving the immune system a workout is what vaccination is all about!

However, in contrast to a real infection, the workout is safe. Because the virus is weakened, it will do little damage until the immune system gets the upper hand, and therefore inflicts less suffering, and doesn't risk permanent injury or even death (yes, influenza can kill. It's doesn't usually, but as Wikipedia puts it:

In a typical year, 5–15% of the population contracts influenza. There are 3–5 million severe cases annually, with up to 650,000 deaths globally each year. Deaths most commonly occur in high risk groups, including young children, the elderly, and people with chronic health conditions.

(emphasis mine)

In summary, vaccination is a much safer way to exercise the human immune system than infection with a live virus. And it's similarly effective.

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    I hear you and I totally get that. I just need to get that message to her.
    – zunetastic
    May 7 at 12:20
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    The adjuvant is a confounding factor here. How do you know that the adjuvant doesn't result in a weaker immune system in the long run? (Just trying to evaluate this from the perspective of an antivaxer.)
    – Brilliand
    May 7 at 20:40
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    I'd say: "Because the part of the immune system that needs training is not the part that detects that cells are dying, but the part that identifies and destroys the cause." The primary immune response (fever) is not specific and doesn't need training. The secondary immune response (antibodies) is.
    – meriton
    May 8 at 2:06
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    I mention the adjuvant as a counter to the argument like "but if the viruses are weaker, they don't offer real training!". The adjuvant is what compensates for that by making the immune system "panic".
    – meriton
    May 8 at 2:10
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I have family members that are also against vaccines.

I've seen some answers counteract her concern with facts. But sometime people can be less worried about technical details and more weary of the medical profession in general. They may have had bad experiences in the past, or their parents have and this has been a concern for them.

What I recommend - and what worked for my family member - is I encouraged them to get to know a local doctor or nurse. And instead of answering all their questions myself, or debating the facts with them, we go to see the nurse (who gives the injections/does the child checkups), and we ask her the questions.

It makes the situation much easier when you are not the one supplying the answers, but someone trusted in the community. A person who has experience with dealing with these kinds of concerns, who they can see in real life who isn't some part of a 'conspiracy' but has their own family and vaccinated their own children and who has your best interests in mind.

We had a very frank discussion with our GP about my family member's concerns over the medical profession, and my GP was able to help develop a rapport that helped us eventually get to the point where now the family member sees this GP regularly (and trusts only them).

This way, whenever your wife has a question, you can say "let's go ask nurse/doctor that". And you can avoid the conflict, and she can get good, solid information (not from google) from a person in real life who knows what they are talking about.

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    Yep. Some antivaxers are worried that vaccines might not actually be what they claim to be; this can only be addressed by a doctor who has an actual batch of vaccines on hand and understands what they're composed of.
    – Brilliand
    May 7 at 20:30
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How do I convince her against this irrational thinking?

This is an unhelpful attitude.

Setting up an issue like vaccines as combative between co-parents is really immature and in doing so you are placing the well being of your children at risk. Trying to prove "I am right" particularly because "my wife is irrational" turns it into a power struggle where now vaccination is going to be demoralizing for her. The smug, gloating face of the husband ushering the child into the exam room.

Such a microcosm of "red vs blue" vaccine conversation in the US.

There is a general communications issue that is beyond the scope of this thread. If you are going to be like that, please do not be sullying the name of vaccines.

At this point you should ask her, "How do you feel when we talk about vaccines? What else do you think it's related to in our relationship?"

But for the sake of argument let's go back in time before all the baggage got piled on. What could have been said?

Here is some general info from CDC on this subject for concerned parents: Making the Vaccine Decision: Common Concerns

There are still going to be questions. I would be interested to know, who does she talk to or listen to about this? No eye rolling or other body language please. What sorts of things has she heard? A lot of people have vague urban legends. "Some people got HPV vaccine then got really sick" They are generally unfalsifiable. Sometimes it's something specific about a known person, and contradicting it basically means calling her friend a liar.

Snopes.com has a search for urban legends which they have been fact checking for many years so if there is a specific story, sometimes you can find it there. But be careful not to drag this attitude in because you can make it worse even if you are right. Maybe before you even talk about this together, you should just be seen looking at this website and learning stuff. It's a fun website. :)

The question about who is she talking to is not academic. Since you heopfully have some knowledge of her friends and family, you could kindly ask someone who you are both on good terms with to tell her that they got their kids vaccinated. Peer pressure can be powerful especially if it was a strong motivation for the initial concerns.

It is established fairly well that a strong recommendation from a health care provider with whom there is a good rapport is also influential. Even if you have a general idea the Dr is in favor, you should ask the Dr with your wife, "Can you tell us what you think about giving the flu shot to children? What are the risks?" Make an appointment just to talk about it you do not even need to bring the kids (if childcare is available).

  • Ames HM, Glenton C, Lewin S. Parents' and informal caregivers' views and experiences of communication about routine childhood vaccination: a synthesis of qualitative evidence. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2017 Feb 7;2(2):CD011787. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD011787.pub2. PMID: 28169420; PMCID: PMC5461870.

  • Mohammed KA, Vivian E, Loux TM, Arnold LD. Factors Associated With Parents’ Intent to Vaccinate Adolescents for Human Papillomavirus: Findings From the 2014 National Immunization Survey–Teen. Prev Chronic Dis 2017;14:160314. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5888/pcd14.160314external icon.

I would also like to note that the preceding has been a shallow and even facile analysis of the issues. While I always 100% recommend everyone get all the scheduled vaccines they can except in the extremely unusual case of true contraindication, there are a lot of reasons people choose otherwise. Anyone interested to learn one piece of this story as it regards Black Americans should read the classic Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington, and there was a really great interview with her recently on This Podcast Will Kill You.

Also I hope Dad is getting his flu shot every single year like clock work. 💉⏰ And you smile when you get the injection, showing your kids how it stings for little moment but you are so happy you got it because you will be more likely to stay healthy. And be in a great mood all day. Be the change.

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  • I agree with mostly everything, except the last paragraph about smiling when you get the injection. I would be myself. Sometimes things do hurt and faking a smile is fooling nobody.
    – stan
    May 11 at 4:18
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For some people (not all!) a data-driven argument may be convincing.

Thus, the danger of flu to children is similar to that of COVID-19. Therefore, if you plan on getting the COVID-19 vaccine for your children, you should also get the flu shot.

Additional details:

  • The flu season is shorter than the period reported on for COVID-19, so if we adjust for the time period covered, the danger may be even more similar.

  • Also note from the second link:

    While any death in a child from a vaccine preventable illness is a tragedy, the number of pediatric flu deaths reported to CDC each season is likely an undercount. For example, even though the reported number of deaths during the 2017-2018 flu season was 188, CDC estimates the actual number was closer to 600. It is likely the actual number of children who died from flu during the 2019-2020 season is higher as well.

  • You may be getting the COVID-19 shots not because you are afraid of your children dying from COVID-19, but because of possible long-term effects of an infection ("long COVID"). If so: there are also long-term effects of the flu.

  • You may be getting the COVID-19 shots not because you are afraid of your children dying from COVID-19, but so they don't infect others, e.g., grandparents. If so: the same reasoning applies to the flu.

  • Finally, per the second link:

    CDC recommends everyone 6 months and older get an annual flu vaccine, especially children who are younger than 5 years of age or children of any age who have a high risk medical condition, because they are more likely to develop serious flu complications that can lead to hospitalization and death. Getting vaccinated has been shown to reduce flu illnesses, doctor’s visits, missed school days, and reduce the risk of flu-related hospitalization and death in children.

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    Right now very few countries have approved vaccines for children. There are even vaccines which are explicitly not going to be approved for children (AZ, J&J). I don’t think using “if you’ll give your child the COVID vaccine” is a useful metric, because nobody even knows if children will get a vaccination. It’s also quite likely anyone who doesn’t want the flu vaccine also doesn’t want a COVID vaccine (especially given just how unlikely COVID death is for children).
    – Tim
    May 6 at 15:58
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    This is a deeply flawed assumption. You cannot draw any conclusions from the number of deaths without factoring in the number of infections. On their own, the number of deaths are meaningless. For example, if I told you that there were 10 deaths from paraglider accidents this year and 100 deaths of pedestrians hit by cars, would you conclude that crossing the street is 10 times more dangerous than paragliding?
    – terdon
    May 6 at 16:42
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    @terdon While normally I'm a fan of pointing out that rates are generally vastly more informative and less misleading than absolute values, you're a bit mistaken here. Because the rate here is "deaths by X out of everybody that could potentially be at risk of dying of X". In the case of infectious diseases this is just proportional to "deaths by X" regardless of the particular infectious disease X. Because more or less everyone in the population is at risk. Your example has a mismatch because most all of the population is exposed to crossing roads, but most are not exposed to paragliders. May 7 at 3:42
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    @zibadawatimmy no, the relevant statistic is "deaths by X out of the people who had X" and "deaths by Y out of the people who had Y". The risks are absolutely not the same for the entire population, and the rate of infection of an infectious disease is essential if you want to measure its risk. You can't just count deaths and assume everyone had the same risks. In other words, you're not at risk because you can cross the road, you're only at risk if you actually try to cross it.
    – terdon
    May 7 at 8:31
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    @terdon: I agree with zibadawa timmy. We cannot influence differential exposure to the flu and to COVID in the way we can influence differential exposure to crossing the road vs. paragliding, so the relevant comparison here is total mortality, essentially integrating out exposure. Plus, of course, the low costs of countermeasures - traffic is still more dangerous to children than either one of COVID and flu, but the countermeasure to COVID & flu is a simple vaccination, while there is no such simple countermeasure against traffic risk. I don't think we will come to an agreement, though. May 7 at 8:55

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