While Ebola fosters fear and fascination, many in the U.S. ignore a potentially killer disease until they catch it – influenza. In fact, the flu shot rate in the U.S. is below 50 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in a “glass half empty” presentation by CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden.
Health officials are particularly concerned because the coming flu season is expected to be a rough one. Australia has experienced its greatest number of flu cases in five years. While impossible to predict exactly what will happen in the U.S. later this year, the flu outbreaks in the southern hemisphere are generally indicators of upcoming flu activity in northern hemisphere.
As a result, Frieden and others a pushing doctors and public health officials need to do a better job convincing people to get a flu vaccine, citing some surprising statistics. For example, the CDC has long recommended that all pregnant women get a flu shot regardless of where they are in the gestation cycle. Vaccines can prevent influenza in pregnant women and protect their babies for the first six months of life. Yet, only 52 percent of women who were pregnant nationwide were vaccinated in 2013.
Even worse, the CDC reports that, according to recent data, only 65 percent of pregnant women were told by their health care providers to get a vaccine or offered one at a prenatal visit. Additionally, almost 20 percent of pregnant women were never informed that they should get a vaccine.
The CDC reports that only 82 percent of hospital-based doctors and nurses get vaccinated last year and the statistics are way lower in some areas. These are people who deal with the flu patients or care for others who are vulnerable to being around any health care provider who might be contagious.
For example, the Boston Globe cites a Massachusetts Department of Public Health report that the state has the fourth highest rate of vaccination in the U.S. However, only 53 percent of people in Massachusetts got a flu shot last year, a drop from the 57 percent who received a vaccine the year before. Further, the research from about one-third of Massachusetts’ acute care hospitals indicated that less than 80 percent of health care workers received the flu shot last year.
There are more flu “shot” options available this year. There are the usual shots. There are also the nasal sprays, which are typically offered to those ages 2 to 49. A new option is a “needle-free” shot that uses pushes flu vaccine through the skin.
There are also more places to get flu shots, besides doctors’ offices and health clinics. Stores like Target, grocery chains, drug store chains and other places offer flu shots.
Additionally, there are two different vaccines available this year. There is the quadrivalent vaccine, which protects against four influenza types. There is the trivalent vaccine that addresses three types. However, neither vaccine is preferred over the other. The CDC emphasized it is just important to get a flu shot which is formulated each year to address the strain expected to hit based on the southern hemisphere trends.
The reality is that the flu causes more deaths in the U.S. every year than Ebola has in all its outbreaks. Influenza also puts about 200,000 people a year in the hospital. The CDC believes that the cup that is half empty – the flu shot rate below 50 percent – needs to be filled more than before.
By Dyanne Weiss