“If you are 6 months or older in the U.S., there’s a flu vaccine for you,” William Schaffner, MD, of Vanderbilt University, Nashville, said in a press briefing sponsored by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.
Some good news about the flu – vaccination rates increased slightly last year, compared with the previous year among all individuals aged 6 months and older without contraindications, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, these numbers fall short of the Healthy People 2020 flu vaccination goal of 70% for most population subgroups, so there is room for improvement, said Dr. Schaffner, medical director of the NFID in Bethesda, Md.
Experts continue to recommend annual influenza vaccination for all persons aged 6 months and older, but they emphasize the need to identify those at risk of not getting vaccinated and develop strategies to increase vaccination coverage.
“Vaccines are among the greatest public health achievements of modern times, but they are only as useful as we as a society take advantage of them,” Secretary of Health & Human Services Thomas E. Price, MD, said at the briefing.
Overall flu vaccination in the United States was 47% for the 2016-2017 season, compared with 46% during the 2015-2016 season, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr. Price emphasized that vaccination is only part of a successful flu prevention strategy. Stay home when you are sick to help avoid spreading germs to others and take antiviral drugs if a doctor prescribes them to help reduce and avoid complications from flu, he said.
Children aged 6-23 months were the only population subgroup to meet the 70% Healthy People 2020 goal last year, with a rate of 73%, said Patricia A. Stinchfield, RN, CPNP, senior director of infection prevention and control at Children’s Hospital Minnesota, Minneapolis.
“Our goal is to increase coverage for children of all ages,” she said. But it’s not just about the kids themselves, she emphasized.
“If your child gets the flu, they expose babies, grandparents, pregnant women. We need to vaccinate children to protect the public at large,” she said. In addition, health care professionals must be clear about recommending vaccination. The research shows that a specific recommendation often makes the difference for vaccinating families.
Pregnant women are among those who can and should safely be vaccinated, Ms. Stinchfield emphasized. Flu vaccination among pregnant women was 54% in 2016-2017, similar to the past three flu seasons, and approximately two-thirds (67%) of pregnant women in 2016-2017 reported that a health care provider recommended and offered flu vaccination, according to CDC data.
Older adults also are important targets for flu vaccination, noted Kathleen M. Neuzil, MD, director of the Center for Vaccine Development at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. Last year, approximately 65% of U.S. adults aged 65 years and older were vaccinated, which was the largest subgroup of adults aged 18 years and older, she said. Older adults may be caring for frail spouses or infant grandchildren, so protecting others should be a motivating factor in continuing to encourage vaccination in this age group, she noted.
The flu vaccine supply is plentiful going into the start of the 2016-2017 flu season, with an estimated 166 million doses available in several formulations, said Daniel B. Jernigan, MD, director of the CDC’s Influenza Division.
Options for vaccination include the standard vaccine, a cell-based vaccine, and a recombinant vaccine. In addition, an adjuvanted vaccine and a high-dose vaccine are available specifically for adults aged 65 years and older; these vaccines are designed to provoke a stronger immune response, Dr. Jernigan said.
However, the briefing participants agreed that the best strategy is to get vaccinated as soon as possible, rather than postponing vaccination in order to secure a particular vaccine type.
Clinicians should not underestimate the power of leading by example when it comes to flu vaccination, Dr. Schaffner noted. Support from the highest levels of administration is important to help overcome barriers to vaccination coverage for health care workers by making vaccination easy and accessible, he said.
The overall influenza vaccination coverage estimate among health care providers was 79% for the 2016-2017 season, similar to the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 seasons, but representing a 15% increase since 2010-2011. Vaccination coverage was highest among health care personnel whose workplaces required it.
Complete data on 2016-2017 vaccination coverage in health care workers and in pregnant women were published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on Sept. 29.
The CDC’s complete flu vaccination recommendations are available online .
The briefing participants had no relevant financial conflicts to disclose.