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 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 more than 200 million 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.
In 2004, contamination at a British flu-vaccine plant caused a severe flu vaccine shortage in the United States. Delivery problems caused many caregivers to wait weeks for the vaccine in 2005. Gerberding said vaccine manufacturers, distributors and government officials had worked to iron out delivery problems this year.
"Our supply is good this year and we're optimistic, although never 100 percent confident, that we will ultimately be able to deliver all that flu vaccine" in a timely manner, Gerberding said. Twenty-five million doses have already gone to distributors, and 75 million more will be in the delivery pipeline by the end of October.
The CDC recommends flu vaccinations for all high-risk individuals and those who could transmit the virus to them. High-risk groups include pregnant women; nursing home residents; people age 50 and older; people and children 6 months old and older with chronic medical conditions, such as asthma, diabetes or weakened immune systems; caregivers for high-risk individuals and people with muscle or nerve disorders; and others who share their homes.
Effective July 2007, the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations will require that all health care organizations and programs require flu vaccinations for all staff. The joint commission is the nation's leading standards-setting body for the health care industry. William Plested, president of the American Medical Association, said his organization is urging caregivers to adopt the new standard this year.
For more information about influenza and vaccinations, go to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site at http://www.cdc.gov/flu/
For more information about pneumococcal vaccine, go to the CDC Web site at http://www.cdc.gov/nip/vaccine/pneumo/default.htm#pubs
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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