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Influenza Vaccination Rates Remain Low as Flu Activity Continues to Rise

In honor of National Influenza Vaccination Week, the CDC reports on influenza vaccination coverage and the benefits of receiving a flu shot.

In honor of National Influenza Vaccination Week (NIVW), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released information pertaining to influenza vaccination coverage throughout the United States. Vaccination remains the most effective way to prevent “catching the flu;” however, recent data show that flu vaccine coverage remains low this year.

According to the CDC’s report, which is released each year, last season’s influenza vaccine prevented about 5 million individuals from catching the flu and 71,000 individuals from ending up hospitalized due to influenza. The CDC reports that since the beginning of November, only 2 out of 5 people have received this season’s influenza vaccine in the United States.

In a press release, Nancy Messonnier, MD, director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said, “We are glad to see that people are making the decision to protect themselves and their families from the flu, but coverage is still low and we urge people to get vaccinated if they haven’t yet. We have a tool that is proven to prevent flu illness and hospitalization but millions of people are not taking advantage of it. Too many people are unprotected.”

Although this season’s vaccination coverage estimates are similar to the numbers of last season at this time for all age groups (40% of people received their flu shot—including 41% of adults of 18 or older and 37% of children ranging from 6 months to 17 years of age), the CDC is paying close attention to those who are at higher risk, such as children and adults 50 and older.

According to the CDC, compared to the common cold, influenza is more dangerous for children. Each year, around 20,000 children under five end up needing hospitalization due to influenza infections. Since the 2004-2005 influenza season, 37 to 171 flu-related deaths are reported to the CDC each year.

Joe Bresee, MD, a pediatrician and chief of the Epidemiology and Prevention Branch of CDC’s Influenza Division stressed in the press release, “We are urging parents to make sure their children get a flu shot this season, as the nasal-spray vaccine is not recommended for the 2016-2017 flu season. An annual flu vaccine is very important protection for children.”

In adults 50 or older, the CDC noted that there has been a “three percentage point decrease” in final vaccine coverage estimates for 2015-2016 comparted with the 2014-2015 flu season. It has been known that adults over 65 are at higher risk for acquiring the flu due to weakened immune function, but Dr. Messonnier reminded the public that a third of people between 50 and 64 have conditions that put them at increased risk of catching the flu and developing serious complications.

In addition, the CDC also took a closer look at estimates regarding vaccination coverage in pregnant women and healthcare workers. They found that over half of pregnant women do not receive a flu shot; however, the estimates of pregnant women receiving their flu vaccine this year (47%) are six percentage points higher than the 2014-2015 estimates. For healthcare providers, the estimates are comparable to last year’s early estimates, with about 69% of healthcare providers receiving their flu shots. A somewhat troubling note is that last flu season, only 69% of healthcare personnel working in long-term healthcare facilities, received flu shots and early estimations regarding vaccination coverage this year is 55%, “the lowest among all health care providers.”

In the press release, Dr. Messonnier stressed, “It is really important that health care workers get vaccinated and especially important that we continue to make progress vaccinating health care workers who work in long-term facilities. Many of the most frail and vulnerable people live in these facilities and we know that vaccinating their caregivers helps protect them.”

The flu changes every year, which means that each year, a lot of work goes into figuring out the next season’s strains in order to update the seasonal flu vaccine and maintain its effectiveness when it comes to prevention. According to the CDC, H3N2 viruses are “predominant” this year, which is why this flu season is predicted to be all the more severe, especially for those who are at higher risk.

According to the press release, “Flu vaccination last season is estimated to have reduced the amount of flu illnesses and hospitalizations that would have occurred in an unvaccinated population by 19 percent,” preventing around 5.1 million illnesses and 71,000 influenza-related hospitalizations. The report on the impact of vaccination stresses that receiving a flu shot is nothing but beneficial. With the vaccine, a significant number of illnesses and hospitalizations can be avoided. For example, “There was an estimated 25 million flu illnesses and 310,000 flu-associated hospitalizations in the United States last season—but if vaccination rates had been 5 percentage points higher, another 500,000 flu illnesses and 6,000 flu-related hospitalizations could have been prevented.”

Past data regarding vaccination coverage suggests that vaccination tends to drop after the month of November despite the fact that influenza has reached peak levels between the months of December and February almost 75% for the past 30 years; this means that receiving vaccination after November would still be beneficial. In addition to vaccination, the CDC also recommends that individuals, especially those at high risk, take antiviral drugs as a second preventive measure against the virus.