Although a higher percentage of Americans are receiving influenza and pneumococcal vaccinations compared with previous decades, the rates across all population segments are not high enough, according to public health officials.
The influenza vaccination rate for the 2016-2017 season stood at 76 percent for patients ages 6-23 months, but looking at all individuals older than 6 months, the rate was just 46.8 percent. The CDC estimates that the flu has caused 12,000-56,000 deaths overall each year since 2010, and 105 children died of influenza in 2016.
Spurred by such numbers, a panel of physicians and infectious disease experts participated in a discussion hosted by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases(www.nfid.org) on Sept. 28 to stress the importance of influenza and pneumococcal vaccinations for all age groups and discuss some of the barriers to increasing vaccination rates.
"I believe the words 'just' and 'flu' should not be in the same sentence," said Patsy Stinchfield, R.N., M.S., a pediatric nurse practitioner at Children's Minnesota who specializes in vaccine-preventable diseases, "unless you're going to say, 'I just got my flu vaccine.'"
Influenza vaccination prevented an estimated 5.4 million cases of flu last season. If the annual vaccination rate rose 5 percent, 490,000 more illnesses and 7,000 more hospitalizations could be avoided.
Influenza vaccination rates vary widely among different demographic groups, with health care professionals at 78 percent, elderly patients at 65 percent and pregnant women at 53 percent. The panelists emphasized that physicians, other medical professionals and public health officials need to educate all patients about the importance of vaccination.
AAFP President Michael Munger, M.D., of Overland Park, Kan., attended the event. He told AAFP News that vaccines are an essential component of wellness and prevention that can be lost in the maze of uncoordinated care.
"As family physicians, we believe in the power of immunizations to improve public health," Munger said. "There are so many ways to get a flu shot, including health fairs, the pharmacy, a grocery store or a doctor's office. Sometimes physicians just assume that a patient got their immunization somewhere and it's not recorded."
Munger noted that even though influenza vaccination rates among elderly patients indicate progress, 85 percent of all flu-related deaths occur in people 65 and older. Vaccination rates are lowest in the 18-49 age category -- at 34 percent -- with many patients in their 20s and 30s often dismissing the importance of vaccination in the belief that they are "healthy enough."
Family physicians should serve as health educators, counseling patients about the necessity of getting a flu shot.
"All of us in family medicine and primary care need to devote part of the office visit to ask patients about the flu vaccine and offer it like it's a vital sign," Munger said. "It just needs to be integrated into the daily workflow."
Patients who respond that they do not need a flu shot should receive a strong recommendation otherwise.
"It should become more of an expectation," Munger said. "It shouldn't be presented as, 'Would you like a flu shot?' Instead we should say, 'We will get you a flu shot.'"
The panel also noted that the CDC recommends pneumococcal vaccination for all infants and toddlers, as well as for adults 65 and older and those with specific chronic health conditions. Recommendations for specific pneumococcal vaccination regimens vary depending on factors such as health status.
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