October 17, 2006

VUMC Flu Expert Urges Middle Tennesseans to Get a Flu Shot

Unlike the two previous winters, when flu vaccine was in short supply or its delivery was significantly delayed, there should be an adequate supply of vaccine on hand this year to combat Middle Tennessee‘s oncoming flu season.

Unlike the two previous winters, when flu vaccine was in short supply or its delivery was significantly delayed, there should be an adequate supply of vaccine on hand this year to combat Middle Tennessee‘s oncoming flu season.

Each year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists influenza and its resulting complications among the nation‘s top 10 leading causes of death. During a typical flu season between 5 percent and 20 percent of the U.S. population will contract the disease. Influenza accounts for more than 200,000 hospitalizations and approximately 36,000 deaths annually in the United States.

“These 36,000 deaths attributed to the flu each year are excess deaths. These are deaths that were not expected to occur during this time period,” said William Schaffner, M.D., professor and chairman of Vanderbilt University Medical Center‘s Department of Preventive Medicine.

“Influenza vaccine will serve to prevent many of these deaths, not to mention curbing worker absenteeism, unnecessary medical visits, and prescriptions for unnecessary antibiotics. This is probably, for its small fee, the single-most effective preventive measure that you can make. It beats other preventive measures hands down.”

Schaffner says the CDC has now made a firm recommendation that all children 6 months to 5 years old be vaccinated for the flu. “This is terribly important because this is a very large population, and indeed a substantial majority has never been vaccinated before. This means that these children need two doses of vaccine to be protected,” he said.

Schaffner says, for this reason, parents should visit pediatrician‘s clinics early to get their children vaccinated.

Other important groups who should seek flu vaccinations early are all women who are pregnant, or women who are intending to become pregnant at any point during the flu season.

“Flu vaccine is safe when given during pregnancy. The flu vaccine is one of two vaccines that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says not only can be given during pregnancy, but should be given during pregnancy,” Schaffner said.

Pregnant women who contract influenza experience potentially serious health complications at a rate comparable to those experienced among older members of the population, and this often places both the mother and her baby at risk.

“Interestingly there are some new data on flu vaccine and pregnant women. While not conclusive yet, it appears that if the mother is vaccinated during her pregnancy, her baby — during its first six months of life before it can get the flu vaccine — has some protection donated by the mom,” he said. “This is very exciting news that should further motivate expectant mothers to get their flu shots.”

During the two previous years an inadequate number of FDA-approved influenza vaccine manufacturers subsequently led to the shortage of flu vaccine for Americans. Encouragingly, more pharmaceutical manufacturers stepped into the void, and this year, flu vaccine should be plentiful.

Predicting the severity of a coming flu season is never easy.

“This year the betting is a little stronger that we‘re going to have a more severe flu season. We‘ve just had two rather mild flu seasons back-to-back. It‘s very rare to get three mild flu seasons in a row. It‘s almost unheard of,” Schaffner said.

“Furthermore, we have some signals from the Southern Hemisphere, where people just went through winter and their flu season. There was a new variant influenza virus that was circulating south of the equator, and we expect that virus to be circulating here. When a new flu virus circulates, it ought to stimulate a pretty brisk influenza season because it will be somewhat new to all of us.”

Schaffner says this year‘s flu vaccine is formulated to include this new influenza virus variant. “This is an additional reason people should be encouraged to get their flu shot this year, to protect themselves from this new strain,” he said.

The CDC recommends influenza vaccinations for all persons 50 years and older; all children age 6 months to 5 years; and all persons ages 5-49 who:

· reside in nursing homes or long-term care facilities

· are pregnant or expecting to become pregnant during the flu season

· have chronic lung or heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, cancer, neuromuscular disease, HIV infection, or other immunocompromised illness.

· have contact with any of the above groups.

This year, flu shots at Vanderbilt cost $20. Most medical insurance plans, including Medicare, will cover this cost.