Americans urged to put flu shots on holiday to-do lists

Tis-flu-season-Put-shots-on-to-do-lists-BBM1Q4H-x This year's flu season is off to a mild start, but confirmed cases have been seen in 30 states so far — and January and Feburary are often the peak.

Which is why health officials on Monday urged Americans to get their flu shots or flu nasal sprays now, so "you're protected before the holiday season begins, when you get on that plane, train or bus to go see loved ones," says Anne Schuchat, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

A total of 36.3% of Americans older than 6 months of age had been vaccinated for influenza by early November, say officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This year's rate is a little better than last year's, which in early November stood at 32.8.8%. And for children it's even better, 36.7% compared with last year's 30.6%.

"But the season's not over, and we can still do better," says Schuchat, who reminded Americans that this is National Influenza Vaccination Week.

The flu is a serious disease. Each year between 5% and 20% of the U.S. population gets influenza, says Howard Koh, assistant secretary for health with the Department of Health and Human Services. On average, 200,000 people a year are hospitalized during flu season, he says. Death totals vary tremendously depending on the strains circulating, ranging from 3,000 to 49,000 a year, he says.

For the past two years, the CDC has recommended that everyone six months or older be vaccinated against influenza. It's especially important for young children, pregnant women, older people and those with chronic conditions such as asthma, diabetes and heart or lung disease, Schuchat says. All of these groups are at particular risk for complications.

One positive note, Schuchat says, is that the elderly are also getting vaccinated at higher rates; this year, 62.3% of people 65 and older have received flu vaccine.

The message also seems to be getting to pregnant women. Before 2009, the rate was less than 15%; this year, 43.2% of pregnant women had been vaccinated by early November, she says.

Among people with chronic conditions that put them at greater risk for complications from the flu, the figure was 42%. "This is an area where we have lots of room for improvement," Schuchat says.

In past years, most people would have gotten their flu shots before Thanksgiving and vaccination "would come to almost a complete halt" afterward. The 2009 H1N1 pandemic changed that. In 2010, 43% of Americans were vaccinated in November and 19% between December and May, she says.

That's good news because there's still time to get vaccinated before the worst of the flu season hits.

Another shift that has increased vaccination rates is that flu shots are available many more places than previously. Rather than have to go see the doctor, flu shots and nasal sprays are available at supermarkets, pharmacies and in the workplace.

This year, 55% of adults got vaccinated at a clinic or the doctor's office; 21% at a supermarket or pharmacy; and 16% at work. Most children still get vaccinated at the doctor's office, though 5% were vaccinated at school this year.

Although there were no racial or ethnic disparities for children getting the flu vaccine, that's not the case with adults. Currently, coverage is 40% for whites, 28% for blacks and 26% for Hispanics, Schuchat says.

This year's vaccine appears to be a good match to the currently circulating flu strains, Schuchat says. The vaccine for 2011 is the same as for 2010, but she cautions that the duration of vaccine effectiveness varies from person to person, so you still need to get vaccinated this year. "The best way to make sure you're protected is to get another vaccination this year."

USA Today

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