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Only half of Americans plan to get a flu shot this year. Here’s why that’s a problem

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While 60% of adults think that the flu vaccine is the best preventive measure against flu-related deaths and hospitalizations, only 52% said they planned to get one this season, according to a survey by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID).

NFID and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention held a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington on Thursday to talk about the survey and to encourage Americans to get vaccinated against this potentially deadly disease.

“Make no mistake: the flu is a serious, but impactable health challenge,” said US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. “I’m here because the mission of HHS is to protect and enhance the health and well-being of every American, and one of the easiest ways to do that each year is for everyone over 6 months of age to get a flu vaccination.”

Flu vaccine effectiveness can vary, studies show, reducing the risk of illness between 40% and 60% among the overall population when the vaccine is well-matched to the virus strains that are circulating during a particular flu season. But even if you get sick, a flu shot will reduce the number of days you are sick and drastically lower the chances you will be hospitalized or die from flu. Even after people have recovered from their illness, the inflammation that accompanies the disease puts people at greater risk for heart attack and stroke, even weeks after their flu symptoms have gone away.

Describing flu vaccination and prevention as “important public health causes for the entire Trump Administration,” Azar walked through the numbers from a survey NFID conducted about flu vaccination rates and attitudes in August.

The NFID survey of more than 1,000 people found that there was an increase in the number of children who were vaccinated against the flu: almost 63% got it in the 2018-2019 flu season, an increase of nearly 5% from the flu season before.

“The flu vaccination coverage was greater for children than for adults. Pediatricians drive this message home,” said Dr. Patricia Whitley-Williams. Whitley-Williams is the NFID president-elect, and a professor of pediatrics and division chief of allergy, immunology and infectious diseases at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

“But 63% is not acceptable. We can, and we must, do better,” she said.

Children are at high risk for getting the flu and if they get a flu shot, it dramatically lowers the chances they’ll spread the virus to other students and to the adults who interact with them.

“Dispelling those myths with the parents has been important,” Whitley-Williams said. “Some parents tell me they worry [they’re] going to develop the flu from it and that is just not true.”

“With the danger of getting the flu, especially flu related complications, it is just devastating to have a healthy child one day and then see them dying in the ICU from flu, which is totally preventable,” Whitley-Williams said.

She compared getting a flu shot to using a child’s car seat.

“You wouldn’t drive off with a child that was not restrained in a car seat,” Whitley-Williams said. “No good parent would do that. Why would you not vaccinate your child against the flu?”

Older people account for most flu-related hospitalizations, yet only 68% of long-term care workers who interact with that high-risk population got a flu shot. That’s low compared to the overall estimated rate among health care workers: 81% said they had their shot last flu season. Looking at the number of children who died from the flu between 2010 and 2016, only 22% were fully vaccinated, Azar said.

“We know the flu vaccination can be life-saving in children,” Azar said.

For the 2018-2019 US flu season, which started October 1, 2018 and ended May 4, 2019, preliminary numbers from the CDC estimate there were up to 42.9 million cases of flu, up to 647,000 hospitalizations and up to 61,200 flu deaths.

The top reason people said they did not get a flu vaccine: 51% surveyed said they didn’t think it worked, 34% said they were concerned about side effects and 22% said they were concerned they’d get the flu from the vaccine. Azar added some adults say they don’t like needles.

“When does it start?” Azar asked, joking after he was given a flu shot at the press conference. “Painless.”

“It’s not perfect, but it’s still critical that we emphasize the importance of even this partial protection,” of the flu shot, said Dr. William Schaffner, the NFID medical director. Schaffner is a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

“We need to remember, even if you get influenza after receiving the vaccine you are likely to benefit by having a less severe and shorter illness and you are less apt to have complications,” Schaffner said.

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