I recently ran across a sign in a CVS drugstore offering money to encourage people to get the influenza vaccine. The sign read: “Flu season has arrived! Get your flu vaccine today! Visit Pharmacy for details! -Receive $5 off $25 coupon! *Avoid the Sniffles!” Apart from the excessive use of exclamation points, the sign caught my eye because I had just finished reading a press release about Rite Aid pharmacies in California offering free ice cream to entice people to get the influenza vaccinations.1 2
According to the press release:
Now through Sept. 28, Rite Aid is sweetening the deal for annual flu shots by offering customers a coupon for one free scoop of Thrifty Ice Cream when they get their seasonal flu shot at one of the nearly 600 Rite Aid pharmacies in California.1
Apparently, the “ice cream for flu shot” deal has become a staple of Rite Aid. The company made the same offer last year.3 4 Organizations such as the Ridgfield Visiting Nurse Association (RVNA) of Ridgfield, Connecticut have jumped on the idea as well and are giving away free ice cream to children who get a flu shot.5 6 7
The headline of an article by the Ridgefield HamletHub reads: “RVNA Flu Shots and Deborah Ann’s Ice Cream, Perfect Combo.”5 An article by The Ridgefield Press describes the “incentives” in the RVNA offer as follows:
Two words. Ice cream! All kids 18-years and younger who get their flu shot with RVNA get a free kid’s cone courtesy of Deborah Ann’s Sweet Shoppe, plus entry into a prize-worthy raffle.6
Some pediatricians have also taken to rewarding children with free ice cream as a reward for getting a flu shot.8 You would think that pediatricians, who are seeing growing numbers of children with milk allergies who are gluten and casein intolerant, would think twice before picking ice cream as the proverbial “carrot” to get children to beg their parents to give them a flu shot.9
On Sept. 27, 2019, Newsweek published an article on where to go for free flu shots, notably CVS, Walmart and Walgreens and doctors’ offices, for people with health insurance. For those without health insurance, the article cited Costco as the “cheapest option.” The price of a flu shot there is $19.99, compared to $30-50 at other pharmacies. The Newsweek article also pointed out that Target and Publix offer $5 and $10 gift cards respectively when you get a flu shot, while Safeway offers 10 percent off your “next grocery visit.”10
It is not surprising that so many places that offer influenza vaccinations are, essentially, bribing people to roll up their sleeves. After all, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated the “effectiveness” of the influenza vaccine last “flu season” (2018-2019) at 29 percent and only nine percent during the second half of the season.11
Now, there are reports that the type A and B influenza strains in the 2019/2020 influenza vaccines being given to people in the U.S. and other countries in the Northern Hemisphere may not be well matched to the currently circulating influenza strains dominating this year’s flu season.12 U.S. public health officials at the CDC delayed selection of the influenza strains to be used in this year’s flu vaccine, which delayed production, but it looks like they didn’t know any more about what was going on with influenza viruses this year than they did in many of the flu seasons over the past decade.13
You have to wonder about offering free ice cream to try to persuade people to get an annual flu shot. Bribery is a form of manipulation. Why is bribery necessary, especially with adults, when flu shots are supposed to be so good for you? The tactic is more understandable with children who may be scared of getting jabbed with a needle, but bribing (or coercing) adults merely suggests an inability to make a convincing case for the benefit of the shot using facts and rational arguments.
Admittedly, it is difficult to make a case for a vaccine with an effectiveness rate that rarely surpasses 50 percent in a given year and, on average, is closer to 40 percent.14
1 Press Release. Rite Aid Offering Free Scoop of Thrifty Ice Cream with Each Annual Flu Shot in its California Pharmacies. Rite Aid Sept. 4, 2019.
2 Schena SC. Rite Aid Offers Sweet Incentive For Getting A Flu Shot. Patch Sept. 18, 2019.
3 Dupuie C. Ice Cream and Flu Shots! Tis The Season. ALivingBalance.net Oct. 19, 2018.
4 Wright JJ. Rite Aid Is Offering Free Thrifty Ice Cream To Those Who Get A Flu Shot. iHeart Radio Aug. 17, 2018.
5 HH. RVNA Flu Shots and Deborah Ann’s Ice Cream, Perfect Combo. Ridgefield’s HamletHub Sept. 26, 2019.
6 Santoro T. RVNA offers flu shots. The Ridgefield Press Sept. 13, 2019.
7 Tiffany. Rite Aid Wants to Give You Free Ice Cream! 94.5 PST Aug. 17, 2018.
8 My daughter’s pediatrician prescribed an ice-cream after she got her flu shot. Reddit Nov. 8, 2018.
9 Warren CM, Jhaveri S et al. The epidemiology of milk allergy in US children. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol 2013; 110(5): 370-374.
10 Powers L. Flu Shot 2019: Publix, Walgreens, CVS and Where Else to Get a Free Vaccination. Newsweek Sept. 27, 2019.
11 Cáceres M. What’s So Effective About a Flu Vaccine That’s Less Than 10 Percent “Effective”? The Vaccine Reaction July 3, 2019.
12 Branswell H. Flu vaccine selection may be an ominous sign for this winter. STAT News Sept. 30, 2019.
13 CDC. Table. Adjusted vaccine effectiveness estimates for influenza season for 2004-2018. Apr. 5, 2019.
14 Cáceres M. Influenza Vaccine Effectiveness a ‘Dismal 10 Percent. The Vaccine Reaction Jan. 2, 2018.