by Liz Szabo, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON -- There are plenty of flu shots available this year, and health officials urged Americans on Thursday to roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated -- if not for their own sakes, then for the health of their communities.
About 85 million doses of flu vaccine have been distributed, part of a total of 135 million doses for this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Influenza is predictably unpredictable," said Howard Koh, assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services, who spoke at a news conference in Washington organized by the National Foundation for Infectious Disease.
"In 2009-2010, we had a pandemic with thousands hospitalized and many deaths," Koh said. "Last year, we set a record for the lowest number of hospitalizations and the shortest influenza season."
In spite of the "mild" flu season last year -- brought about partly because the flu strains in circulation were similar to those the year before -- 34 children died of the disease, Koh says. The CDC recommends flu vaccines for everyone over age 6 months.
"Even mild seasons can lead to suffering and death," said Koh, who was vaccinated at the news conference. "People cannot become complacent this season. When it comes to the flu, we cannot look to the past to predict what will happen this season."
Yet most Americans choose to skip the flu shot. Forty-two percent of Americans got a flu shot last year, about the same rate as the year before, according to the CDC.
Vaccination coverage fell sharply with increasing age, peaking at a high of 75% of babies ages 6 to 23 months but falling to 39% of adults and 34% of teens ages 13 to 17. Forty-seven percent of pregnant women were vaccinated against the flu last year, according to the CDC. That's about the same as last year, but far below the CDC's goal of vaccinating 80% of pregnant women.
Flu shots are safe at any stage of pregnancy and are especially important for expectant mothers and their babies, said Laura Riley, director of obstetrics and gynecology infectious disease at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. That's because pregnant women are five times as likely as other people to become severely ill if they get the flu, a condition that can cause miscarriage or preterm delivery, Riley says.
By getting a flu shot during pregnancy, women develop antibodies that go through the placenta to their fetuses, protecting babies after birth for their first six months of life, before they are old enough to get their own shots.
Each year, 5% to 20% of Americans get the flu, causing up to 200,000 hospitalizations, 20,000 of which are in children, Koh said. Even health care workers aren't getting recommended vaccines. Sixty-seven percent of all health care providers get flu shots, although doctors who work in hospitals did slightly better: 87% got vaccinated against influenza, according to the CDC. That's an improvement from 2002, when 32% of health care workers were vaccinated.
Some hospitals require all employees to get flu shots, says William Schaffner, past president of the infectious disease foundation. Those include members of the Hospital Corp. of America, Barnes Hospital in St. Louis and Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, he says. Schaffner said even some health workers believe flu shots can cause the flu, which is untrue.
"This is an ethical and professional responsibility" for physicians, who should get vaccinated to set an example to patients, Schaffner said. "It's a patient safety issue, so we do not transmit our influenza infection to patients. It's also so that when influenza strikes, we are vertical and not horizontal."
Schaffner predicts more hospital workers will become vaccinated once the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services requires those vaccination rates to be published.
The flu shot, as usual, protects against three types of flu viruses. Next year, flu shots will be available that protect against four viral strains, Schaffner said. That's a big improvement, given that it can be difficult for scientists to predict in the spring which viruses will be circulating the following winter.
Though flu shots aren't perfect, they reduce the risk of becoming sick by 50% to 60% when there is a good match between the vaccine strains and those circulating in the community, Schaffner said.
Several kinds of flu shots are available: the traditional shot in the arm, a nasal mist for those ages 2 to 49, a high-dose flu shot for senior citizens and a new intradermal shot for adults over 18 that is supposed to be less painful.