Heading Into Flu Season, Vaccination Rates Could Be Better

More People Died in the 1918 flu pandemic than in World War I.

Courtesy, US Public Health Service

Flu vaccination rates jumped up after the H1N1 flu epidemic in 2002, and it is no wonder: young people, seemingly healthy with strong immune systems, and many more, succumbed to the flu. Deaths, respiratory distress, and coma had a face. Until then, deadly flu and debilitating complications seemed remote. In fact, vaccine experts like Paul Offit, MD, from the University of Pennsylvania, worry that younger generations have no concept that flu can be rapidly fatal, as can many childhood infectious diseases for which we have vaccines that offer protection.

Have we eliminated the memory of these diseases?–Paul Offit, MD, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia

At a recent meeting at the National Institutes of Health, Offit, raised the issue that many young pediatricians did not grow up with  diseases like flu and measles and that medical schools don’t even teach very much about vaccination. A link to the talk is posted on the blog, Respectful Insolence, which is worth following if you are interested in the challenges in getting people to appreciate the public health value of vaccines.

Unfortunately, the media often presents pro-vaccine, public health people like schoolmarm authoritarians.  At the other end of the spectrum, antivaccine folks portray their position with anecdotes, alarmist websites, and call for resistance. The media sensationalizes the story. In the backdrop of medicalization of so much of our lives, it is  perhaps not so difficult to see why anti vaccine messages take hold. Add to that the self-help and empowerment movement, it is not so tough to see why people hold to the perspective that they know better than outside authorities how to shore up their immune system. I am all for patient empowerment and informed choice, but not when the movement rejects science, co-opts empowerment, it must be rejected out of hand.

Seth Mnookin’s The Panic Virus provides the most compelling analysis of why anti vaccine forces have attracted so many people. If you are still looking for a gift for someone, order it. Mnookin told me that the paperback is now available for preorder, and it will be out in a few weeks.

Vaccine Outreach

In recent years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), and community health groups have been pushing hard to get people vaccinated, and some strides have been made. According to CDC’s Kathleen Sheedy, CDC has made a concerted effort to make flu shots readily available and close to home. If you are reading this now, check your local drugstore to see if you can get the flu vaccine, and if you don’t know where to go, check CDC’s Flu Vaccine finder.  Many insurers cover them for free.

CDC has stepped up efforts to reach out to everyone and especially high-risk groups, including pregnant women and children.Even so, according to a recent CDC Internet Panel Survey, as of mid-November, only about 44% of women that were pregnant between August to November for the 2010-11 flu season and 43.2% for the 2011-12 season were vaccinated; 49% of women that were pregnant between October-January 2011 for the 2010-11 season were vaccinated.

Less than half of pregnant women are getting vaccinated for the flu.

CDC Internet Panel Survey, 2011

The flu can cause pregnant women to become very sick. Additionally, infants younger than 6 months are at high risk of severe illness from the flu.

Should you get vaccinated? Yes. Everyone 6 months or older should get the flu vaccine. — CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. All children, people with asthma, diabetes, and heart disease, and those who live in institutions like nursing homes, are at increased risk for the flu and flu-related complications.

So think about what you are bringing to someone’s house this holiday season if you don’t get vaccinated. 

I regret that this post was not out earlier. Suffice it to say that that I was distracted for good reason. The good news is that flu shots are readily available in the US. You can get covered in time for the next flu peak. It takes around 2 weeks after a shot to get covered.

Flu season is not entirely predictable, but flu activity often peaks in January or February. 

Is the flu vaccine 100% effective? No, flu mutates so you are not 100% protected, and people are worrying that the flu virus may be mutating right now. But you will get 60% to 70% immunity, depending on the strain, which is a heck of a lot more valuable than no protection.

This year’s flu vaccine contains the H1N1 protection.

Our memories are awfully short, but H1N1 was devastating to many young, seemingly hardy individuals. If I can leave you with anything before your holiday, I hope that you get vaccinated and make sure that your family and friends do as well.

Happy Holidays, be well!!

I still have plenty of stories that I did not get to in the past two months, but they are timeless. I’ll be relaxing in the next two weeks, but expect I may post here too. 

Have a wonderful new year!




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2 Responses to Heading Into Flu Season, Vaccination Rates Could Be Better

  1. Ricki Lewis says:

    Great and timely post, Laura.

    The important scientific concept behind vaccination is herd immunity. A certain proportion of a population must be vaccinated to halt spread of the illness. Epidemiologists calculate this threshold number for specific illnesses, taking into account virulence, route of infection, incubation time, and other factors. Vaccination is all about protecting others. As Nancy Snyderman put it on WNBC, parents who do not vaccinate their children are being selfish.

  2. Laura Newman says:

    Ricki makes a key point, which I had meant to put in. There are far too many stories of kids getting measles, whooping cough, and the like, often because herd immunity is wanting= people are not vaccinating their kids. These are avoidable with vaccination.

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