Time to get a flu shot

Patients are more likely to receive the vaccine if their doctors recommend it to them.

Posted Oct. 15, 2012.

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Infectious diseases experts say it’s a yearly gamble that too many Americans take: They skip getting vaccinated against influenza, willing to roll the dice and take a chance on becoming ill or spreading the flu to others.

Nearly everyone 6 months and older should be vaccinated, say public health officials. Fortunately, quite a few have followed that guidance, with 42% of the U.S. population — 128 million people — receiving a flu shot during the 2011-12 season. That actually marks a slight increase from the previous flu period, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There are big differences among populations in terms of how often they get vaccinated. For example, about 47% of pregnant women received the vaccine, up from the nearly 30% mark before the 2008-09 season. Fifty-two percent of children age 6 months to 17 years were vaccinated last season.

Whatever the population, there is a simple factor that can make a big impact in getting a vaccination — a physician’s recommendation.

Research shows that when physicians suggest that a patient get a flu shot, about seven in 10 patients do so. Pregnant women who heard a doctor’s recommendation are five times more likely to get the shot.

On the subject of knowledgeable recommendations, flu season always brings a call from public health leaders for health care workers to be the first in line. As it is, 67% of such workers were vaccinated last flu season, up slightly from the previous season. For nurses, the figure was 78%.

We’re happy to report that last time out, 86% of physicians got the vaccine. That’s the highest percentage among those working in health care, though there is room for improvement to achieve the 90% vaccination rate goal for health workers set by Healthy People 2020.

That call for increased vaccination — even among doctors — was the key message at a Sept. 27 news conference held by the American Medical Association, the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and others to announce the start of the flu season and let everyone know that 135 million doses of flu vaccine will be available to doctors’ offices, pharmacies, public health clinics and other locations. As of Sept. 14, more than 85 million doses had been distributed. CDC data show that progress has been made in vaccinating the public, but coverage remains short of public health goals for some groups, such as youths 13 to 17.

In September, the AMA co-hosted a policy forum on U.S. pandemic and seasonal flu influenza preparedness with the Infectious Diseases Society of America at AMA’s Washington office. The society spelled out principles to ensure protection against flu outbreaks, including improving communication strategies and enhancing drug availability.

The AMA’s involvement in the news conference and the forum were just the Association’s latest actions in being in the forefront of calling on the public and the profession to be vaccinated.

Since 2000, the AMA and the CDC have co-sponsored the National Influenza Vaccine Summit, which brings together more than 130 organizations that are committed to flu prevention and reaching public health vaccination goals. The summit, held in May in Atlanta, increases awareness about flu activity, provides information guides and seeks to stimulate advocacy to change national policy, among other things. It also has spawned similar gatherings overseas.

The AMA also has policy that supports universal influenza vaccination of health care workers. The Association encourages hospitals, health care systems and others to immunize them under guidelines set by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices to reduce the risk of transmission to others.

Flu vaccination of health care workers is a safety issue for doctors and patients alike. Doctors protect themselves by getting vaccinated, and they protect their patients.

For the vast majority of people for whom vaccination is recommended, public health officials urge doctors to provide flu vaccine to their patients throughout the flu season and into March. With a substantial supply of safe vaccine for use, there is little reason to hesitate on getting the shot.

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