Flu vaccine kept 80,000 out of hospital last year, CDC says

A child gets a FluMist influenza vaccine. CDC says vaccinations last year kept 79,000 people out of the hospital.
A child gets a FluMist influenza vaccine. CDC says vaccinations last year kept nearly 80,000 people out of the hospital. John Harrington

The flu vaccine kept nearly 80,000 people out of the hospital last year, and prevented 6.6 million cases of flu, federal officials reported on Thursday.

Overall, vaccination lowered the rate of illness and hospitalization by 17 percent — and that’s with a fairly low vaccination rate of 45 percent nationally, CDC officials said.

“This is by far the largest number of hospitalizations and other illnesses that we have seen prevented,” said CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden. “Even with these hospitalizations that were prevented, we still had about 381,000 flu-associated hospitalizations in the last season,” Frieden told reporters.

That's partly because last year’s flu season was pretty severe. “Last year, the flu season hit early and it hit hard,” said CDC’s Dr. Anne Schuchat.

If 70 percent of the population had been vaccinated, 4.4 million people would not have gotten sick and 30,000 more would have stayed out of the hospital, CDC estimates.

CDC recommends that everyone 6 months and older get a flu vaccine every year. But Americans tend not to, and each year, vaccines are often thrown away, unused.

CDC looked at who already has been vaccinated this year. Just 41 percent of pregnant women have been vaccinated, although all of them are supposed to. Pregnancy lowers the immune system, and both the mothers and their babies are vulnerable to severe flu complications. Plus, vaccination during pregnancy protects the newborn. 

Schuchat said it’s too early to say how severe this flu season will be, or how well the vaccine works. This year there are many different choices of vaccine, including several that protect against four strains of flu instead of just three and a boosted shot that works better to protect elderly people, who tend not to respond well to vaccines.

CDC also did not have data yet on how many people died from flu last year or how many deaths the vaccine may have prevented. CDC says influenza kills anywhere between 3,000 and 49,000 people each year.

Three children have died from flu already this year, Schuchat said. Last year, 169 children died of flu. Many were perfectly healthy before they caught flu and most of the healthy children who died of flu had not been vaccinated, CDC said.

On average, CDC says 200,000 people are hospitalized with flu each season — this ranges from 158,000 people hospitalized in 1990-1991 to 431,000 in 1997-1998. Flu vaccine may prevent other conditions, such as heart disease, studies show. 

CDC and other groups struggle to encourage Americans to get vaccinated. They cannot even get 100 percent of health professionals to get immunized — so far this year, as of November, just 63 percent of doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other professionals had been vaccinated.

Workers in long-term care clinics are especially unlikely to be vaccinated and they are the people who may need it most, because their patients are so vulnerable. “Find out what’s going on with the people taking care of the people you love,” Schuchat advised.

People still fear the flu vaccine can make them sick — it’s not true, CDC says. Many also think they don’t need the vaccine, or argue that it doesn't work perfectly. "One day we'll probably have a really, really super-duper influenza vaccine with higher effectiveness," Schuchat said. In the meantime, "It's definitely worth getting the vaccine," Frieden said.

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