Vaccines prevented five million cases last season but only two out of five people have gotten vaccinated this season

Flu Shots Sign / Flu Activity Is Increasing, But Few People Are Getting Vaccinated
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December 12, 2016

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is urging consumers to get vaccinated for the flu this season, but few have been listening so far.

As of early November, says the agency, only about two out of every five people in the U.S. reported that they had gotten the flu vaccine for this season. This statistic stands in stark contrast to the significant numbers of people who benefited from the vaccine last season: an estimated five million cases were prevented in addition to 71,000 hospitalizations due to the virus.

"We are glad to see that people are making the decision to protect themselves and their families from flu, but coverage is still low and we urge people to get vaccinated if they haven't yet," said Nancy Messonnier, M.D., director of CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. "We have a tool that is proven to prevent flu illness and hospitalization but millions of people are not taking advantage of it. Too many people are unprotected."

Coverage estimates of the flu vaccine that are based on data collected via survey through early November indicate vaccination levels that are similar to those from this time last flu season. Out of the overall number of people surveyed, 40 percent said that they had gotten vaccinated, including 37 percent of children ages six months to 17 as well as 41 percent of adults ages 18 and older.

Although the estimates of vaccination rates are similar to last season's early estimates for all age groups, the CDC is taking a particularly careful look at the rates for children and for adults ages 50 and older.

"We are urging parents to make sure their children get a flu shot this season, as the nasal-spray vaccine is not recommended for the 2016-2017 flu season. An annual flu vaccine is very important protection for children," said Joe Bresee, M.D., a pediatrician and chief of the Epidemiology and Prevention Branch of CDC's Influenza Division.

The agency's concern about vaccination rates among older adults was prompted by a three percentage point decline in vaccine coverage among adults 50 and older in final coverage estimates for 2015-2016 in comparison with those of 2014-2015.

"It's too soon to say whether vaccination in people 50 and older will rebound this season. We certainly hope it will," Messonnier said. "About a third of people ages 50 to 64 have medical conditions that put them at high risk of serious flu complications; and we know that declining immune function puts people 65 and older at high risk. While flu vaccination is recommended for everyone 6 months and older, it's especially important that people in high-risk groups get vaccinated."

The CDC also surveyed other demographics regarding vaccination rates for the flu, including pregnant women and healthcare workers. The findings were as follows:

Though early estimates indicate vaccination rates among pregnant women—47 percent—are six percent points higher than last season's early estimates, more than half of pregnant women are still unvaccinated.

Rates among healthcare providers—69 percent—remained roughly the same as last season's rates.

During the last flu season, coverage among healthcare workers employed at long-term care facilities rose by five percentage points to 69 percent. However, this rate remained the lowest among all healthcare provider groups. This season's early coverage estimate for those same providers is, at 55 percent, still the lowest among all providers.

"It is really important that health care workers get vaccinated and especially important that we continue to make progress vaccinating health care workers who work in long-term care facilities," said Messonnier. "Many of the most frail and vulnerable people live in these facilities and we know that vaccinating their caregivers helps protect them."

The flu is an unpredictable virus and every flu season is unique. According to the CDC, it is the H3N2 viruses that have predominated this season so far. Seasons in which this strain predominate are frequently more severe, particularly for young children and adults 65 and older. So far, most flu viruses collected since October 1 have been similar to the vaccine viruses that were recommended for vaccine production.

Although vaccines are the first and best way to prevent contracting the flu, the agency also recommends influenza antiviral medications as a second tool in the flu-fighting arsenal. These drugs, however, are not a substitute for vaccines. It is recommended that those who are at high risk of serious complications from the flu and those who are very ill with the virus be treated with such medications.