Flu Fighter: William (Bill) Schaffner, MD
Name: William Schaffner, MD, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID)
Title: Infectious Diseases Physician, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID)
Meet flu fighter William (Bill) Schaffner, MD, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) and NFID liaison to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). As a leading spokesperson for NFID, he moderates the Annual Influenza/Pneumococcal Disease News Conference, which serves as the CDC/NFID kick-off for each flu season.
Dr. Schaffner’s primary focus has been the prevention of infectious diseases and he often is invited to comment in local and national media on communicable disease issues, translating research and public health events into language that the public can understand. He regards each media appearance as a teaching opportunity.
- In your role, how do you prepare for flu season each year?
Collaboration between non-profits, academic medical centers, and public health institutions—what we at NFID call ‘speaking with one strong voice’–plays a key role in promoting vaccination in both pediatric and adult populations. Working with patients or the public, it is my job to listen to questions and objections and to answer them directly, because getting an annual flu vaccine is the best way to prevent flu and protect against flu-related complications, including hospitalization and death.
- What is the most difficult part of flu prevention?
The challenge with increasing the number of people vaccinated against flu is that the country is suffering from what I call ‘respiratory virus fatigue.’ There has been a barrage of information on getting vaccinated against COVID-19 and other diseases that has many people confused. Furthermore, in the wake of COVID-19 prevention measures, such as masks and social distancing, we have seen fewer respiratory illnesses overall, resulting in many people saying they ‘never have had the flu.’
- Why do you think people underestimate the seriousness of flu illness?
People are unaware that in a typical flu season in the US, millions get sick, hundreds of thousands are hospitalized, and tens of thousands die from flu and related complications. Getting more information out about flu to healthcare professionals and the public is essential. That’s why the NFID/CDC annual campaign to raise awareness about the importance of flu prevention is so important.
- Why is it important to get the flu shot every year?
The viruses vary from year to year and so flu vaccination is needed annually. Flu vaccines are updated annually to protect against the influenza viruses research indicates are most likely to circulate during the upcoming season. And while flu vaccine effectiveness varies from year to year, people vaccinated against flu don’t get as sick, often avoiding hospitalization and death.The best time to get vaccinated is in the early fall, before influenza viruses begin spreading in your community. However, vaccination throughout the flu season is still beneficial.
- What would you say to those who are hesitant about getting the flu shot?
If you care about your community and yourself, then you should get vaccinated to prevent illness. No one wants to be labeled a “dreaded spreader.” This is a person who doesn’t get sick but infects others who may be vulnerable to flu-related complications, including young children, pregnant women, older adults, and individuals with chronic health conditions such as heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes. Persuading people to help protect the community of which they are a part, often makes the case more relevant.