Flu Vaccination of Healthcare Workers: A Professional and Ethical Commitment

This month’s cover story is on one of the biggest challenges infection preventionists face these days, and that’s annual immunization of healthcare workers (HCWs) against seasonal influenza. Less than 40 percent of healthcare providers are immunized each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and public health experts are urging improved compliance for the sake of patient safety and HCW well being.

National Adult Immunization Awareness Week, which was observed Sept. 21-27 this year, was a good way to kick off a campaign for improved vaccination awareness among members of the general public and HCWs. Although most adults realize that immunizations play an important role in keeping people healthy, many do not recognize readily available vaccines also offer a safe and cost-effective way to prevent serious illnesses and death among adolescents and adults. A study by the CDC found that less than 5 percent of American adults are up to date on all of their immunizations. According to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID), as many as 50,000 Americans, mostly adults, die each year from vaccine-preventable diseases or their complications. Immunizations also boost productivity by helping reduce absenteeism at work and school, and decrease the spread of illness in the home, workplace and community.

You may already know the often-cited statistic that influenza can sicken as much as 20 percent of the population each year, and that it causes more than 200,000 hospitalizations and an average of 36,000 deaths each year in the United States. Although up to 1 in 5 Americans will get the flu annually, many do not get vaccinated. The CDC recommends an annual influenza vaccination for anyone who wishes to reduce their risk for this severe respiratory illness. Individuals with chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, asthma, or heart disease are particularly at risk of influenza-related complications, as are people in nursing, convalescent, or other institutional settings. People 50 years of age or older are also urged to get the influenza vaccine annually. In addition, anyone who is in close contact with someone at high risk of influenza infection should be immunized to help prevent spreading the virus, and this includes HCWs.

For this cover story I talked to influenza expert Dr. William Schaffner, professor and chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. Schaffner is pretty passionate about this topic, and I appreciated his candidness in emphasizing the ways healthcare institutions fail to make the most of vaccination opportunities. He also emphasizes the importance of vaccination continuing throughout the entire influenza season, which can begin as early as October and last as late as May, with peak flu activity occurring in January or February. Schaffner alludes to the many excuses HCWs use to evade vaccination, including the controversial aspects of personal liberties involved in refusing to be immunized. He says it’s a critical professional and ethical obligation, and demonstrates commitment to upholding patient safety; to do anything less would be shirking one’s promise to “do no harm.” To read more, please turn to page 12 in the print version of the October issue of ICT or click here.

Until next month, bust those bugs!

Kelly M. Pyrek

Editor in Chief