More Vaccinations Needed To Protect Against Influenza

Keeping communities safe from potentially deadly viruses is everyone’s responsibility.

Keeping communities safe from potentially deadly viruses is everyone’s responsibility, and vaccination is crucial to protecting people from the flu, pneumococcal pneumonia, and other preventable conditions, according to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID).1 This week marks the start of the 2018-2019 flu season.2

On behalf of the NFID, a panel of health care experts spoke at a live event in Washington, DC, about the importance of immunization against influenza. “We should all know by now that the flu is unpredictable. I predict there will be a flu season,” said William Schaffner, MD, an NFID board member and medical director at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “Vaccination will make it less likely that you spread the virus to others. No one wants to be the ‘dreaded spreader.’ ”

In the United States, about 80,000 deaths and 900,000 hospitalizations reported to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during the 2017-2018 flu season were attributed to the influenza virus and related complications such as heart attack and stroke.1 The majority of those deaths occurred in patients aged 65 years and older.

“Last year, more than 90% of adults hospitalized with influenza had an underlying condition that placed them at high risk,” said Dr. Schaffner during the live event. "Flu can exacerbate chronic conditions."

Chronic conditions, such as asthma, heart disease, obesity, and HIV, all can contribute to more severe reactions to the influenza virus. Patients who have had their spleen removed, those with inner ear implants, and smokers also face higher risks, Dr. Schaffner said.

In a separate, prepared statement, US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said that a seasonal flu vaccine is one of the most effective and safest ways to protect self, family, and community from the flu and serious flu-related complications.

"Flu vaccines work by preparing the body’s immune system when exposed to multiple strains of influenza viruses circulating during the influenza season. When a person gets vaccinated, their body’s immune system is able to recognize and respond to a future exposure of the disease-causing agent to prevent that disease," Gottlieb stated.2

Among the flu-related deaths last year were 180 children, about half of whom had underlying chronic conditions that put them at higher risk for serious cases of influenza. According to US Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams, MD, MPH, most of the children who died from influenza last year were unvaccinated. “As a father of 3 young children, this hits me hard,” Dr. Adams added. “One flu death is too many.”

According to the NFID, the vaccination rate among children slightly declined, from 59% in 2016-2017 to 57.9% in 2017-2018, and falls well below the national public health goal of 80%. Vaccination was highest in 2017-2018 among children aged 6 months to 4 years, at 67.8%, but this group’s rate fell 2.2% from the previous year, which poses a concern to the organization.

Pediatrician Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE, chief of digital innovation and digital health at Seattle Children’s Hospital, said parents can utilize regular check-ups with a doctor to have their children vaccinated. She recommended children receive influenza immunization as soon as possible.

“Kids have a lot of snot, and a lot of drool, and they go to school. When they go to school, they share those secretions,” said Dr. Swanson, a mother to 2 boys. “One hundred-eighty families put a child in a grave last year because of a preventable virus.”

Immunization also is crucial to pregnant women, another population group at higher risk for serious cases of influenza. According to Laura E. Riley, MD, a Given Foundation professor and chair of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Weil Cornell Medicine, a woman’s immune system changes when she becomes pregnant, and her lung function decreases as the pregnancy advances, which both make her more vulnerable to a viral illness.

“In every (flu) epidemic, we’ve seen that as you get into the second and third trimesters, you’re more likely to die or end up hospitalized,” said Dr. Riley.

Women with influenza tend to deliver their babies prematurely, Dr. Riley added, which can result in lifelong complications for the child. In addition, influenza-related fever in a pregnant woman can cause birth defects, she added. On the other hand, vaccinations administered to pregnant women cross into the placenta, providing virus protection to mothers and their babies that lasts for months following birth.

“There is a huge protection here,” Dr. Riley said. “We’re protecting women from death. We’re protecting women from hospitalization. We’re protecting babies from prematurity.”

The influenza vaccine is available as an injection or nasal spray this year. In addition to doctor visits, health care experts said vaccinations are being administered in pharmacies, hospitals, and clinics, as well as in many workplaces, provided by employers.

Officials with the NFID emphasized that everyone aged 6 months and older should receive an influenza vaccine. In addition, other preventive measures can be taken to avoid getting the virus or passing it on to others, such as the “3 Cs”: Keeping hands clean, covering coughs and sneezes, and containing the virus. “If you’re sick, stay home,” said Dr. Adams. “If you think you have the flu, go to your doctor.”

Dr. Riley noted that many individuals don’t realize how sick the flu can make a person. “It’s a really nasty virus. That’s the message that needs to get out,” she said.

Health care experts also urged patients aged 65 years and older to get the pneumococcal virus vaccine. According to the NFID, pneumococcal disease most often causes pneumonia and can lead to sepsis, a common complication of influenza. Patients with underlying conditions are at higher risk for hospitalization or death from pneumococcal disease.1

“Influenza and pneumococcal vaccination are an important part of managing chronic diseases,” said Dr. Schaffner in a prepared statement.1 “By getting vaccinated against flu and pneumococcal disease, we can all do our part to stay healthy and interrupt the spread of these serious diseases.”

This article was originally published as, “NFID: More Vaccinations Needed to Better Protect Families and Communities,” on Pharmacy Times.com.

References:

  1. Influenza and Pneumococcal disease can be serious, health officials urge vaccination [news release]. Washington, DC; September 27, 2018: NFID website. http://www.nfid.org/newsroom/news-conferences/2018-nfid-influenza-pneumococcal-news-conference/press-release.pdf. Accessed September 27, 2018.
  2. Statement by FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., on preparations for the upcoming flu season and vaccinations [news release]. Silver Spring, MD; September 27, 2018: FDA website. https://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm621785.htm. Accessed September 27, 2018.