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More Americans Urged to Get Flu Shots

Vaccine supplies are plentiful this year, but inoculation rates are low, officials say

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 19 (HealthDay News) -- Too many Americans aren't getting vaccinated for the flu, including those most at risk -- seniors, children and health-care workers -- U.S. health officials warned Wednesday.

"Despite the fact that we have influenza vaccine, we are still failing to protect a large proportion of people," Dr. Julie L. Gerberding, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a morning teleconference. "Not just our seniors, but people of every age. And we are not even protecting our children. With vaccination, most influenza is preventable."

In recent years, the supply of vaccine has been spotty. But this year, the CDC is expecting a record 132 million doses to be available, which is 10 million more doses than last year.

Every year, an estimated 36,000 Americans die from the flu, and more than 200,000 are hospitalized.

Gerberding stressed that the flu vaccine is safe, and the myth that you can get the flu from the vaccine is just that -- a myth. "It is true that the vaccine is not perfect. In some years, it is more successful than in others in protecting people completely," she said.

It's particularly important that health-are workers get vaccinated, Gerberding said, not only so they and their families don't get sick, but so they don't pass the flu on to those they are caring for. "It's unconscionable that a health-care worker would not receive this vaccine," she said.

Kerry Weems, acting administrator for the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said that for people on Medicare, the flu vaccine is free with no co-pay and no deductible. "Yet, in any state, 20 percent of people on Medicare aren't getting their flu shot," he said during the teleconference.

Substantial numbers of children and adults not getting vaccinated, either, the officials said.

"Only about a third of children aged six to 23 months received influenza vaccine during the 2005-2006 season," Dr. Jeanne Santoli, deputy director of CDC's Immunization Services Division, said during the teleconference. "Among those children, only two-thirds received the two doses of vaccine that they were recommended to receive. That means that only about a fifth of children were protected fully."

Last season, 69 percent of people 65 and older reported receiving a flu shot, Santoli said. "This is far below our national goal for this group which is 90 percent," she said.

Among younger adults, only 37 percent of those aged 50 to 64 and 31 percent of high-risk adults 18 to 49 (such as those with respiratory problems) reported getting a flu shot, Santoli said. In addition, only about 40 percent of health-care workers received vaccinations, she noted.

To improve the levels of vaccinations, the CDC is recommending getting a shot as soon as the vaccine is available in the coming weeks. And you can get a vaccination beyond the usual October/November window. A shot that is gotten in December, January and even later, can protect against the disease, Santoli said.

"Since influenza peaks in the U.S. in February, most years, we must use opportunities in December and January and beyond in order to protect more American from influenza," Santoli said.

For families faced with the flu, antiviral medications can be effective in helping to fight flu and preventing other family members from getting the illness from an infected relative, said Dr. William Schaffner, vice president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and chairman of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine's department of preventive medicine.

In a related development, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday approved expanding the use of the nasal flu vaccine FluMist to children between 2 and 5 years old. The nasal vaccine had been limited to healthy children 5 and older and to adults up to age 49.

"The goal of preventing influenza is now more attainable with the availability of FluMist for younger children," Dr. Jesse L. Goodman, director of the FDA's Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, said in a prepared statement. "This approval also offers parents and health professionals a needle-free option for squeamish toddlers, who may be reluctant to get a traditional influenza shot."

Speakers at Wednesday's teleconference also said that seniors should be vaccinated with the pneumococcal vaccine to prevent pneumonia. Rates for this vaccination are also low, and panel members urged seniors to get this vaccine at the same time they are vaccinated for flu.

More information

For more on the flu and the flu vaccine, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Sept. 19, 2007, teleconference with Julie L. Gerberding, M.D., M.P.H., director, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; Jeanne Santoli, M.D., M.P.H., deputy director, CDC Immunization Services Division; Kerry Weems, acting administrator, U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services; William Schaffner, M.D., vice president, National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, and chairman, Department of Preventive Medicine, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, Nashville

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