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With increased influenza activity anticipated this fall, U.S. public health officials and other leading medical experts today urged Americans to be vigilant and get immunized early for protection against seasonal influenza.
Seasonal influenza vaccine is already available in many communities and Americans should begin to get vaccinated now. Seasonal vaccine supply is expected to top 110 million doses this year. Every year more than 200,000 Americans are hospitalized from influenza complications and about 36,000 die from influenza-related causes.
"The single best way to protect yourself and your loved ones against the flu is to get vaccinated each year," said Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). "Vaccination is the cornerstone of our prevention efforts. I will be receiving my flu vaccination later this week."
Sebelius spoke at a news conference sponsored by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) and held in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), American Medical Association (AMA), American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), American College of Physicians (ACP), AARP and National Influenza Vaccine Summit.
Experts said the best strategy for the upcoming influenza season is a concerted campaign to immunize Americans early against seasonal influenza, followed by immunization against the novel H1N1 virus when that vaccine becomes available later this fall.
"In all our concern about the novel H1N1 influenza, we must not let our guard down against seasonal influenza," said William Schaffner, MD, president-elect of NFID and chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. "It is critically important that we take the threat of seasonal flu seriously, and vaccination is the best course of prevention."
Thomas Frieden, MD, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, emphasized some important things people should do when it comes to influenza. "To protect themselves and others against the flu, it's important to stay home when sick, cover coughs and sneezes, and wash hands often. Get the flu vaccines according to the recommendations of CDC and your doctor. Seasonal flu vaccine is available now. And if you or someone in your household has the flu and either have an underlying medical problem or are very sick, see a doctor or health care provider right away for treatment."
At the news conference, infectious disease specialists also urged people aged 65-plus and those younger than 65 with certain risk factors to make sure they get their pneumococcal vaccine. Any influenza infection can put people at increased risk for pneumococcal infection, which can cause severe illness, including bacterial pneumonia, bloodstream infection and meningitis. A one-time pneumococcal vaccination is necessary to protect most adults who are in the groups recommended for the pneumococcal vaccine.
Schaffner advised older persons and also anyone who smokes, has asthma or other chronic medical conditions to get the pneumococcal vaccine. "Since we expect increased influenza cases overall this fall, pneumococcal vaccination is that much more important," he said.
Americans Continue to Have Questions as Flu Season Begins
According to data released at the conference, the public continues to have questions about seasonal influenza. In a survey of 1,000 U.S. adults commissioned by NFID, 48 percent had specific questions about seasonal influenza and the vaccine. Respondents were asked to provide the one most important question they had about seasonal influenza; their questions covered a wide range of topics.
Of those who had questions, the most common related to how to keep from getting influenza (13 percent), the effectiveness of seasonal influenza vaccines (12 percent), the seriousness of flu/how many people die from it (11 percent), how easily flu spreads (9 percent) and when the best time is to get vaccinated (8 percent). These questions were addressed in detail by the experts during the news conference.
Although vaccination remains the first line of defense against influenza, antiviral medications are available to help treat influenza. These medications are most effective when started within 48 hours of the first symptoms. Antivirals may also be used in certain situations to help prevent influenza in individuals exposed to the influenza virus. Currently, antivirals can effectively treat certain seasonal influenza strains and the novel H1N1 influenza.
Children and Pregnant Women among those Recommended for Both Seasonal and H1N1 Vaccination This Year
Children and pregnant women will need to be vaccinated with two different influenza vaccines this year - the one against seasonal influenza and the vaccine now being developed against novel H1N1 influenza. Every year, children 6 months through 18 years of age, regardless of medical conditions, and pregnant women are recommended for seasonal influenza vaccination.
"Healthcare professionals should be among the first in line for both vaccines," said Gregory A. Poland, MD, director of the Mayo Vaccine Research Group at Mayo Clinic and chair of the Adult Immunization Advisory Board of the American College of Physicians. "They need to set a good example for their patients by getting vaccinated, which will keep them healthy and at work and, most importantly, will reduce the chances of them passing influenza to vulnerable patients in their care." Poland also commented on why protecting everyone against seasonal influenza is so important. "We do not know what toll seasonal influenza will take from year to year, but we do know that it will come, many people will get very sick and unfortunately, people will die."
Seasonal Vaccine Still Essential for Older Adults and Certain Younger Adults
Older Americans are fortunate to be less likely to get sick from the H1N1 influenza virus than younger people, perhaps due to exposure to a similar influenza virus earlier in their lives.
On the other hand, it is critical that all Americans aged 50 and older get their seasonal influenza vaccine, experts said. "Older adults are the ones most likely to suffer serious complications from seasonal influenza and they have the highest fatality rates," said Cora L. Christian, MD, MPH, a member of the AARP board of directors. "They're also more likely to be caring for young children and older loved ones who are vulnerable to influenza. Getting vaccinated is the best way to stay healthy and active while protecting those around you." Christian also reminded people 65-plus that pneumococcal vaccination is especially important for them. Both vaccines are free for anyone with Medicare Part B.
Seasonal vaccine is also recommended for adults of any age who don't want to get the flu or transmit it to those around them. It is also recommended for adults younger than 50 who are at higher risk of infection or complications, including those with underlying medical conditions and residents of long-term care facilities. Finally, the vaccine is recommended for household caregivers of young children, the elderly and anyone else at high risk of influenza complications.
Too Many Parents Unaware of Seasonal Influenza as Serious Threat
Many mothers do not consider it important to consistently vaccinate their children against seasonal influenza, according to recent research conducted by NFID. This is in spite of the fact that approximately 100 children die each year from seasonal influenza; about half of these deaths are in children who were previously healthy. The research also shows that many mothers mistakenly believe there are ways to avoid influenza that are just as effective as vaccination.
"School-age children have the highest infection rates for seasonal flu, while infants and toddlers have very high hospitalization rates comparable to those for the elderly," said David T. Tayloe, Jr., MD, FAAP, president of AAP. "Despite this, too few parents are getting their children immunized. This puts them at much greater risk for the flu, which can have serious consequences even in the healthiest children."
Although pediatric deaths from influenza are not nearly as common as deaths in the elderly, public health officials are concerned that a growing percentage of the children who die - as many as 42 percent in 2007-08--are co-infected with MRSA, a form of the Staphylococcus bacteria that is resistant to methicillin and other antibiotics commonly used to treat staph infections.
Children are usually the first age group to get influenza each year, with outbreaks often beginning in schools and then moving on to the community at large. Influenza vaccination is particularly important to protect children and help prevent the spread of disease.
Patients and Healthcare Professionals Need to Talk About Influenza
Research shows that the advice of a healthcare professional is one of the most important factors in a patient's decision to get vaccinated against influenza. Since many people will have to be vaccinated against more than one kind of virus this year, communication between patients and healthcare professionals will be essential.
"Seasonal influenza vaccination is a personal and public health priority, and both patients at high risk and in the general population should plan to get vaccinated," said AMA immediate past president Nancy Nielsen, MD.