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2012 Flu Outlook: Unpredictable Season, But Plenty Of Vaccine Available

Tue, 10/02/2012 - 1:03pm

WASHINGTON, Sept. 27, 2012 /PRNewswire/ -- Public health officials and medical experts practiced what they preach by getting vaccinated against influenza during a National Foundation for Infectious Diseases' (NFID) news conference today. Urging the public to follow suit, experts cautioned that influenza is unpredictable and that last year's mild season is not necessarily an indication of what can be expected in 2012-2013 and, even during mild seasons, flu takes a serious toll.

Assistant Secretary for Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Howard K. Koh, M.D., announced the latest influenza vaccination coverage rates among children and adults, which reinforced the need for ongoing, collaborative efforts to improve influenza immunization.

"I urge everyone to join me and get a flu vaccine this year," said Dr. Koh, who was the first to receive his flu vaccine during the news conference, held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. He was joined by leaders from the American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American Pharmacists Association, AARP, National Medical Association, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and NFID, in partnership with the National Influenza Vaccine Summit, and called on everyone 6 months of age and older to follow CDC's universal recommendation by getting vaccinated against influenza each year.

According to the CDC data, which was published in today's issue of CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, influenza vaccination rates remained steady with an estimated 128 million people, or about 42 percent of the U.S. population receiving the influenza vaccine during the 2011-2012 season.  However, rates varied widely between age groups and among states.

"The past three years have demonstrated that influenza is predictably unpredictable," Dr. Koh added.  "When it comes to flu, we can't look to the past to predict the future. Stay healthy -- get vaccinated!"

More than 85 million doses of influenza vaccine have been distributed as of September 14. Manufacturers project that about 135 million doses of influenza vaccine will be available this season in doctors' offices, public health clinics, pharmacies, retail stores, and other venues.

"In this election year, there are many important national health issues that are up for debate, but this is one that's easy to agree on," said William Schaffner, M.D., immediate past-president of NFID and chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, who led the news conference. "We should all be voting 'yes' for influenza and pneumococcal prevention. It is every individual's responsibility to put prevention to good use and make vaccination part of their routine healthcare."

2011-2012 Influenza Vaccination Coverage Shows Steady Progress, Highlights Gaps

Steady gains have been made, particularly since influenza vaccine recommendations were expanded to include all healthy adults just two years ago. However, the CDC report indicates that coverage remains lower than the public health goals of 80 percent for people between the ages of 6 months and 65 years and 90 percent for people older than 65 years.

Vaccination rates among children age 6 months to 17 years remained steady at 52 percent, with the greatest increase among children age 6 to 23 months (approximately 75 percent were vaccinated in 2011-2012, an increase of slightly more than 6 percentage points higher than the previous year). Coverage for children decreased with age; vaccination among adolescents age 13 to 17 years remains low at 34 percent. Adults age 65 years and older - the group with the longest standing recommendation to receive the influenza vaccine - had the highest coverage rates among all adults (approximately 65 percent), but showed a continued decline over the past few years (from approximately 74 percent in 2008-2009). While pediatric vaccination coverage among race/ethnic groups was comparable, similar to the previous season, disparities still remain in the adult populations.

In addition to data on vaccination rates by age and race, Dr. Koh also released information about influenza immunization among pregnant women and healthcare personnel. Vaccination coverage among pregnant women remained consistent (47 percent), but still significantly higher than rates prior to the 2008-2009 influenza season which were regularly lower than 30 percent. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) also 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," said Laura Riley, M.D., director of Obstetrics and Gynecology Infectious Disease, Massachusetts General Hospital, representing ACOG. The flu vaccine is safe and offers protection for the mother. Research shows it can decrease the baby's risk of getting the flu for up to six months after birth."

Among healthcare personnel, influenza vaccination rates increased slightly from the previous season (approximately 64 percent in 2010-2011 to 67 percent in 2011-2012), with highest rates among physicians (approximately 86 percent). By work setting, hospitals were associated with the highest vaccination coverage for healthcare professionals; coverage was lowest among healthcare professionals -- other than physicians and nurses -- working in long-term care facilities.

Healthcare Community Plays A Critical Role In Motivating The Public

Research has consistently shown that a recommendation from a healthcare professional will greatly help to improve vaccination rates among all populations.

"It is critical for physicians to protect themselves from the flu and to also encourage their patients to get vaccinated," said Litjen Tan, M.S., Ph.D., director of Medicine and Public Health at the American Medical Association. "For example, pregnant women whose physician recommended the flu vaccine were five times more likely to get vaccinated, so we want to get the message out to all physicians that they can encourage patients to get vaccinated."

Location of vaccination has also changed slightly over the last few years. With an increasing number of venues offering vaccines, more people are opting to get vaccinated outside of traditional medical settings. All 50 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico now allow pharmacists to administer influenza vaccine, according to pharmacist Mitchel Rothholz, chief strategy officer, American Pharmacists Association, and more than 20 million doses were administered by pharmacists last year.

"Pharmacists have been offering flu vaccines for nearly two decades, but the 2009 pandemic prompted greater collaboration throughout the immunization neighborhood, resulting in sustained public health gains.

Pharmacists and pharmacies are playing a greater role within the immunization neighborhood in making vaccines and vaccine information more accessible to all community residents."

2012-2013 Influenza Outlook

The seasonal influenza vaccine protects against the three viral strains most likely to cause the flu in the upcoming year. This year's seasonal influenza vaccine has one strain in common with last year's vaccine, A/California/7/2009 (H1N1)-like virus, plus two new viral strains, A/Victoria/361/2011 (H3N2)-like virus and B/Wisconsin/1/2010-like virus.

Four influenza vaccine options are available to meet the needs of various populations: a nasal spray; the traditional intramuscular injected vaccine; a high-dose injection for people age 65 years and older; and an intradermal vaccine that features a smaller needle.

While vaccination is the first line of defense against influenza, at the news conference, CDC outlined its three-step approach to fighting influenza. Vaccination is the first and most important step, coupled with everyday preventive actions such as good hand and cough hygiene.

For those who do get infected, appropriate use of influenza antiviral drugs can help reduce the risk of serious complications from the infection. CDC recommends either oseltamivir or zanamivir for treatment and prevention of influenza.

Dr. Schaffner advised that the influenza season is also an opportune time for older adults to ask their doctors about pneumococcal disease and the status of their vaccination needs. Both vaccines can be administered at the same time. Pneumococcal infection is a common complication of influenza, although it can occur any time of year.

Pneumococcal disease can be severe, leading to pneumonia, meningitis, and other serious infections. People age 65 years and older are recommended to receive the pneumococcal vaccine once. It is also recommended for adults 18 and older with certain health conditions, such as heart, lung and liver problems, diabetes, and asthma or those who smoke. Unfortunately, about 73 million U.S. adults who are recommended to receive the pneumococcal vaccine have not received it.

Leading by Example

At the news conference, NFID issued an influenza prevention commitment statement calling on healthcare professionals, business, and community leaders to "lead by example," by making influenza prevention a health priority. More than 30 companies and organizations have already signed on to show their support. Additional information is available at: nfid.org/leadingbyexample.

About the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases

The National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) is a non-profit, tax-exempt (501c3) organization founded in 1973 dedicated to educating the public and healthcare professionals about the causes, treatment, and prevention of infectious diseases.

This news conference is sponsored by NFID in partnership with the National Influenza Vaccine Summit and is supported, in part, by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, MedStar Health Visiting Nurses Association, and through unrestricted educational grants to NFID from Genentech, Health Industry Distributors Association, MedImmune, Merck and Co., Inc., Pfizer Inc, and Sanofi Pasteur.

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