Flu season is coming and while there is plenty of vaccine available this year, many Americans who should get the vaccine do not bother, top health experts said Tuesday.
These people, who include doctors, nurses and those who care for the elderly, are not only leaving themselves open to a deadly illness, but are endangering weaker patients.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Medical Association, the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and other groups said they were campaigning to try to persuade Americans to get their flu shots.
“This year we have enough vaccine available now so that we want everybody to get vaccinated as soon as possible,” CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding said at a news conference.
For the past two years, influenza vaccines were in short supply, so the CDC asked that healthy Americans wait to get their shots until the older and more vulnerable had a chance to get them.
But this year, 85 million doses are available — plenty to vaccinate anyone who wants to be.
Yet in any year, only about two-thirds of those who should get the vaccine do. This is even though influenza kills 36,000 Americans in an average year — up to 70,000 in a year when an unusually virulent strain is circulating.
Dr. Kristin Nichol of the Minneapolis Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center said studies have shown a 50 percent reduction in all causes of death in people who have received a flu vaccine the same year — including seemingly unrelated conditions such as heart disease and stroke.
Nichol said because influenza is generally a mild illness in young, healthy people, they may not be aware that they can endanger older, weaker and more susceptible people by failing to get vaccinated.
“People underestimate the extent to which they can put other people at risk,” Nichol said.
'Alarmingly low number'
Only 38 percent of health-care workers get vaccinated against influenza, even though they are susceptible because of the very nature of their work, said AMA president Dr. Donald Palmisano. ”That is an alarmingly low number,” Palmisano said.
Not only do these workers risk being out sick in the case of an epidemic of flu or some other disease, but they can pass influenza on to their patients, who may be at a higher risk of serious complications and death.
One reason is that they are pressed for time. “It must be made easier for health-care professionals to take advantage of vaccination,” Palmisano said. Clinics, nursing homes and hospitals should provide free, on-site vaccinations to their workers, he said.
Other groups also are not getting flu shots — including at-risk children.
CDC flu expert Dr. Nancy Cox said recent studies had shown that only 9 percent to 25 percent of children with moderate to severe asthma get annual flu shots, although they are all supposed to.
A new, inhaled vaccine is available this year — FluMist, marketed by MedImmune Inc. and Wyeth. It is only approved for use by young, healthy people between the ages of five and 49, and costs more than the standard shoulder-administered shot.
“We hope that the new vaccine will encourage many healthy people to get vaccinated who otherwise would not have been vaccinated,” said Dr. William Schaffner of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Tennessee.