Flu Vaccines: Yea or Nay?
By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent
Thu Oct 20, 4:03 PM ET
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Too few Americans, especially minorities, are being vaccinated against the annual flu epidemic, and recent shortages of vaccine are not helping, U.S. health officials said on Thursday.
Fewer than half of blacks and Hispanics who should have received the vaccine actually did, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.
The CDC report reflects the annual flu vaccine, which is recommended for everyone 65 and up, pregnant women, young children, people with weak immune systems and their caretakers.
In an average year, seasonal influenza kills about 36,000 Americans and up to 500,000 people globally.
Those numbers could rise to millions globally if a serious pandemic occurred -- a possibility many experts say has become more likely with H5N1 avian influenza, which is affecting poultry from Asia into Europe and may someday change enough to infect people easily.
There is no available vaccine against H5N1 yet but health officials note that annual flu is a big risk itself. They also want people to get vaccinated this year against regular flu so that if H5N1 begins to cause a pandemic, people will at least be protected against the less dangerous strains.
Efforts to encourage vaccination fell apart in recent years. During the last season, Chiron Corp. lost its license to make vaccine and had to destroy half the anticipated U.S. supply of 100 million doses.
Government officials were able to scrape together a little over 60 million doses but in the end several million doses were thrown away unused.
CDC experts analyzed the 2003 flu vaccine year, when 65 percent of seniors got the recommended shot -- far below the 90 percent target.
Just 48 percent of non-Hispanic blacks, and 45 percent of Hispanics in high-risk groups reported they got the vaccine.
"Among persons aged 18 to 64 years with high-risk conditions, influenza vaccination coverage was 34.1 percent," reads the report, published in the CDC's weekly report on death and disease.
Just 13 percent of pregnant women got immunized in 2003, although they are also at risk of complications from flu.
Other studies have shown only 36 percent of health-care workers get flu shots, even though they are very likely to be infected and can pass the virus on to vulnerable patients.
The trouble comes in part because people do not realize the benefits of vaccination, the CDC said. While the flu vaccine does not always completely prevent influenza, it can make an infection much less serious.
But supply disruptions in 2001, 2002 and last year also confused people, who sometimes lined up to get immunizations, sometimes were told to stand aside to let more high-risk people get theirs and who sometimes had to wait for vaccines to be delivered.