Officials from various medical organizations united to deliver a single message to the public: Get the influenza vaccine.
“The last several years have demonstrated that influenza is predictably unpredictable,” Howard Koh, MD, assistant secretary for health at the US Department Health and Human Services, said during a press conference. “Although the last flu season was mild, people cannot become complacent. When it comes to flu, you can’t look to the past to predict the future.”
Since the CDC’s universal recommendation took effect in fall 2010, the United States seems to be on track in protecting against influenza, according to William Schaffner, MD, past-president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, professor and chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University and a member of the Infectious Disease News Editorial Board. Research has shown that when people know the vaccine is recommended for them, they are more likely to get the vaccination.
“There are many factors that make it easier than ever for everyone to receive influenza vaccine,” Schaffner said. “Influenza vaccination is more accessible than ever. We have multiple types of influenza vaccine to meet the needs of anyone who wishes to get vaccinated.”
There also is plenty of vaccine to go around. More than 85 million doses of influenza vaccine have been distributed as of Sept. 14, and manufacturers project that approximately 135 million doses of the vaccine will be available this year in doctors’ offices, public health clinics, pharmacies, retail stores and other venues.
According to CDC data published today in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, overall rates of influenza vaccination have remained steady during the past two seasons.
Approximately 42% of the US population received the influenza vaccine during the 2011-2012 season vs. 43% in the 2010-2011 season.
Approximately 52% of children received the influenza vaccination in the 2011-2012 season vs. 53% during 2010-2011. Broken down by age, the influenza vaccination rate goes down. Whereas 75% of children aged 6 to 23 months received the vaccine last season, only 34% of adolescents received the vaccination.
“Flu vaccination is especially important for young children who are at risk for complications,” Koh said. “The good thing about the past flu season, there were no racial or ethnic disparities in flu vaccination coverage for children.”
Conversely, influenza vaccination rates for adults leave much room for improvement. Approximately 39% of adults aged at least 18 years received the influenza vaccination last season vs. 41% in the 2010-2011 season. Among adults at high risk, the coverage rate was 45% last season vs. 47% in the 2010-2011 season.
Although adults aged at least 65 years had the highest coverage rates among adults, at 65%, this rate is actually a decline from the 74% rate seen in the 2008-2009 season.
Vaccination among pregnant women was approximately 47%, which is significantly higher than the 30% seen in the 2008-2009 season. According to Laura Riley, MD, director of obstetrics and gynecology infectious disease at Massachusetts General Hospital, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends the influenza vaccine for pregnant women.
“Influenza is five times more likely to cause severe illness in pregnant women than women who are not pregnant,” Riley said. “The flu vaccine is safe and offers protection for the mother. Research shows that it can also decrease the baby’s risk of getting flu for up to 6 months after birth.
Health care workers also have seen slightly increased rates of influenza vaccination. Last season, the rate of vaccination was 67% vs. 64% in the 2010-2011 season. The highest rate was among physicians. Hospitals had the highest rates of vaccination coverage and the lowest rates were seen among health care professionals — other than physicians and nurses — working in long-term care facilities.
This year’s influenza vaccination includes three strains. One, A/California/7/2009 (H1N1)-like virus, was in last year’s formulation. The two new strains included in this year’s formulation are A/Victoria/361/2011 (H3N2)-like virus and B/Wisconsin/1/2010-like virus.
Schaffner also said there are four different options for receiving the vaccine for various populations: nasal spray; the traditional intramuscular injected vaccine; a high-dose injection for adults aged at least 65 years; and an intradermal vaccine with a smaller needle.
In addition, although vaccination is the first and most important step, other preventive actions such as good hand hygiene and cough hygiene are important. In the event of infection with influenza, antiviral drugs, such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu, Genentech) and zanamivir (Relenza, GlaxoSmithKline), are recommended by the CDC to reduce the risk for serious complications.
Of course, prevention is key, which is why vaccination is so important.
“We all know that the national election is going on and in the spirit of the upcoming election, this is one national fight that is easy to agree on,” Schaffner said. “Everyone should vote yes for vaccination.”
For more information:
CDC. MMWR. 2012;61:753-757.
CDC. MMWR. 2012;61:758-763.
Disclosure: Koh, Riley and Schaffner report no relevant financial disclosures.