At this year’s annual National Foundation for Infectious Diseases news conference on influenza and pneumococcal disease, the message was clear as health experts issued a resounding call for all Americans 6 months of age and older to get their flu shot.
At this year’s annual National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) news conference on influenza and pneumococcal disease, the message was clear as health experts issued a resounding call for all Americans 6 months and older to go get their flu shot.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Tom Frieden, MD, MPH, spoke at the NFID news conference on the serious and unpredictable nature of the flu, saying that we don’t take this virus seriously enough and thus, vaccination rates have stayed low. “Flu, each year, sends hundreds of thousands of people to the hospital. In a bad year it kills up to 49,000 Americans, including elderly, people with underlying conditions, and infants. Each year we see 100 or more infants or children with flu who die from flu. When we’ve analyzed those infants we’ve seen that about 90% didn’t get vaccinated.” If we could increase vaccination coverage in the United States by just 5%, says Dr. Frieden, it would prevent about 800,000 illnesses and nearly 10,000 hospitalizations.
For its effectiveness, the flu vaccine is considered one of the “best buys” in public health. But the news conference came as the CDC released data from the National Immunization Survey on flu vaccination coverage for 2015-2016 influenza season, showing that only about 59% of children and 41% of adults received the shot. Overall, only 45.6% of Americans were vaccinated for the flu, says the survey. Those numbers show no change in coverage among children from the previous flu season, as well as a 1.9% drop in coverage for adults. The best rate of coverage last season in the general public was seen in children ages 6 to 23 months, with more than 75% receiving a flu shot. Of adults 65 years of age and older, more than 63% received a flu shot. Among healthcare workers, more than 9 out of 10 got vaccinated.
Those numbers show that those in the age groups our health experts consider at highest risk for developing flu-related complications are most often getting the shot. Children younger than five years of age and especially those younger than two years old, along with adults 65 years of age and older, pregnant women, and those who have certain medical conditions, are most at risk for complications and death from the flu. The CDC’s “Take 3” plan on fighting the flu emphasizes vaccination, prevention, and antiviral medication to alleviate illness for those who do get the flu. This season, says Dr. Frieden, it’s important to get the flu shot by the end of October.
Because the influenza virus continuously goes through both gradual and sudden genetic shifts, the medical community monitors the virus around the world and uses that information each year to develop vaccines best suited to fight the flu viruses most likely to circulate in the upcoming season. Some years, those surveillance efforts produce vaccines that are highly effective in preventing disease, and in some years we see flu viruses make abrupt and major genetic changes that render the recommended vaccine ineffective against some circulating viruses. With rapid genomic sequencing, health officials are already monitoring this season’s early flu activity, and while it’s too early to know if this year’s vaccine will be a match to circulating strains, flu experts are anticipating that it will be a good match. Of note though, the CDC is no longer recommending the nasal spray vaccine as it has been ineffective in preventing illness in recent flu seasons.
“The flu vaccine has a proven record of success,” said Dr. Frieden at the conference. “It’s not perfect, we wish it were better, but it will cut your risk of flu if the match is good by at least a half, and that’s far better than anything else you can do to protect yourself against the flu.”
The panel of experts at the news conference discussed the improvements that have been made over recent years in flu vaccine development, with more options now available in high supply ahead of the 2016-2017 flu season. “Since the first NFID flu news conference held 20 years ago, we’ve seen enormous changes in the influenza vaccine landscape,” said NFID Medical Director William Schaffner, MD. “Twenty years ago, flu vaccine recommendations were limited to people aged 65 and older and certain high risk populations. Now we know about the enormous toll that flu takes on the entire population, young and old alike, so we’ve recommended it universally every year, for everyone age 6 months and older.”
Boosting our flu vaccination coverage will keep Americans healthier and promises a reduction in US healthcare costs and fewer missed work and school days. “There’s no magic bullet to get everyone vaccinated and to improve vaccination rates,” Dr. Schaffner told the audience full of doctors and health officials. “That said, each of us can and must be part of the solution by working together to increase awareness among the pubic and healthcare professionals alike, and by getting vaccinated ourselves.”