Health officials are strongly urging the public to get flu shots, as new data show stagnating vaccination rates among most age groups.
“The stakes are very serious,” Health and Human Services Secretary Thomas Price said Thursday after receiving a flu shot at a press conference. “Each flu season, flu causes millions of illnesses, hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations and thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of deaths.”
Since 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has tracked hospitalizations and deaths related to influenza each year.
Hospitalizations have ranged from as low as 140,000 during the 2011-2012 season to a high of 710,000 during the 2014-2015 season, which also saw a decline in vaccination rates. Deaths ranged from a low of 12,000 during 2011-2012 season to a high of 56,000 during the 2012-2013 season.
“Whatever it looks like at a given year, these numbers are far too high considering there is a vaccine that can prevent a significant portion of this disease,” Mr. Price said.
Flu vaccines are recommended for everyone aged 6 months and older, with some children requiring two rounds but most adults only needing one shot.
The most recent data on vaccination rates, compiled by the CDC and the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID), found only a slight increase among all populations but far below the national goal of a 70 percent vaccination rate.
About 46.8 percent of the U.S. population were vaccinated during the 2016-2017 flu season, an increase of 1.2 percentage points from the previous season.
The most widely available flu vaccines protect against the three common strains of the virus: Influenza A (H1N1); Influenza A (H3N2); and Influenza B virus.
On Thursday, U.S. health experts said the H3N2 strain can cause more illnesses and complications in older adults.
“So if you needed another reason to be vaccinated, there it is. Let’s get that protection,” said Dr. William Schaffner, director of the NFID.
“With this pretty good vaccine we can do an awful lot of good,” he said.
In Maryland, at least 20 people contracted a strain of influenza A virus called H3N2v, because they were exposed to infected pigs from at least three county fairs, according to the Maryland Department of Health.
The sick pigs were first identified at a Charles County Fair on Sept. 20, and the virus was later detected at Anne Arundel and Frederick county fairs.
Treatment for the H3N2 virus is the same as those who contract the seasonal flu, which include a regimen of antiviral medication.
Mr. Price said Thursday that scientists at the National Institutes of Health continue to work on developing a universal flu vaccine, that would protect against seasonal, swine, avian and other variants and strains of the virus.
The CDC noted that there were decreases in vaccination rates for older adults during the 2015 to 2016 flu season, a trend that is reversing itself.
Vaccination rates for the age group 50 to 64 rose by 1.8 percentage points (45.4 percent vaccinated) and by 1.8 percentage points for Americans aged 50 to 64 (45.4 percent) and by 1.9 percentage points for those aged 65 and older (65.3 percent).
The highest rate of vaccination coverage during the last flu season was among the age group for babies aged 6 months to 23 months, with a rate 76.3 percent, the only group to exceed the national health goals.
Among demographics, non-Hispanic white children had the lowest flu vaccination coverage, compared to African-American, Hispanic, Asian and American Indian/Alaskan Native children.
However, African-American and Hispanic adults had lower vaccination rates than non-Hispanic whites.
There were wide disparities in flu rates across states based on age, with the lowest rates of childhood vaccination occurring in Wyoming (43 percent) and the highest rates in Rhode Island (74.2 percent). In adults aged 18 and over, the lowest rates of vaccination occurred in Nevada (33.4 percent) and the highest in South Dakota (51.1 percent).
Experts couldn’t point to one explanation for the disparity in vaccination rates across states and age groups, but a variety of reasons including lack of education and awareness, apathy to the vaccine and the simple idea that many people don’t like needles or getting shots.
“It’s a shot, and even grownups don’t like shots,” said Patricia Stinchfield, senior director of Infection Prevention and Control at Children’s Minnesota. “Making that event, the pain part of shots less, is not just something to think about for children, it’s important to think about for adults.”
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