WASHINGTON – Despite record supplies of influenza vaccine and new government recommendations to immunize more children, U.S. health officials fear that many people at high risk for contracting the virus won’t get their annual flu shot this season, risking hospitalization and even death.
With more than 100 million doses of flu vaccine expected for the 2006-2007 flu season, up from 83 million in 2005, officials hope to vaccinate a record number of Americans.
Flu shots and nasal-mist vaccines are fully covered under Medicare, the national health plan for seniors. But some 14 million of Medicare’s 42 million beneficiaries don’t get annual vaccinations even though they face increased risks for contracting the contagious virus.
In addition, nearly 70 percent of 8 million-plus children with asthma, also a high-risk group, don’t get annual immunizations. And 64 percent of health care workers don’t receive annual flu immunizations, putting patients and coworkers at risk.
A new survey by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases found that nearly half of 1,014 respondents don’t plan to be immunized this season. Of this group, 43 percent don’t think the flu warrants a vaccination, 37 percent aren’t concerned about getting the flu and 26 percent aren’t concerned about spreading the virus.
But each year, between 5 percent and 20 percent of Americans contract the flu through person-to-person transmission, primarily by coughing and sneezing. About 36,000 people die each year as a result, and millions are hospitalized from complications of the flu.
“That’s a lot of hospitalizations, a lot of deaths, a lot of health care costs that we know how to prevent,” said Medicare administrator Mark McClellan.
Health officials are hoping an enhanced public awareness and outreach campaign targeting community organizations, health advocacy groups and others will get more people to seek vaccinations at doctors’ offices, area clinics, pharmacies and other locations.
“We want to get the word out. The vaccine is here. The time is now,” said Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Only 65 percent of adults ages 65 and older got flu vaccines in 2005. The goal is 90 percent by 2010.
Health officials are also urging adults 65 and over and everyone older than age 2 with chronic medical conditions to get a pneumococcal vaccine to guard against pneumonia. These vaccines can be administered at the same time as the flu vaccine. Immunization is generally needed only once in a lifetime for most adults.