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Flu season’s rise highlights crucial role of vaccination

Jan. 17, 2013, 9:02 AM

As flu season continues, Vanderbilt officials say it’s not too late for faculty and staff to get the influenza vaccine. (photo by Susan Urmy)

While this year’s flu season appears to be slowing down in some parts of the country, we’re not out of the woods yet, caution officials at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

“We expect cases to continue to surge,” said Tom Talbot, M.D., MPH, chief hospital epidemiologist and associate professor of Medicine and Preventive Medicine. “People should still get their influenza vaccine. It’s not too late.”

While it’s difficult to track the number of flu-related admissions, the percentage of tests conducted in the Medical Center’s Virology Lab that were positive for influenza has jumped sharply — from 3 percent for November, 2012 (26 positive tests), to 13 percent (119 positive tests) during the first 13 days of January.

“This contrasts with unusually mild influenza activity during the 2011-2012 respiratory virus season,” noted Jim Chappell, M.D., Ph.D., the lab’s medical director and assistant professor of Pathology, Microbiology & Immunology.

The Vanderbilt Occupational Health Clinic has a list of sites where employees can get their flu shots without an appointment, said clinic director Melanie Swift, M.D., assistant professor of Clinical Medicine.

The site also links to a “Flu Tool” to help employees determine if they may have the flu.

Those with a fever of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher are urged to stay home until their fever has been gone for 24 hours without using fever-reducing medicine.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), testing is not necessary for most people with flu-like symptoms who are being treated on an outpatient basis.

Neither do otherwise healthy adults require antiviral treatment such as Tamiflu. That should be reserved for people at higher risk of complications or hospitalization if they get the flu, Swift noted.

Efforts also are under way to raise the influenza vaccination rate among faculty and staff.

The Occupational Health Clinic reported on Monday the following flu vaccination rates: 82 percent for attending physicians (clinical faculty); 85 percent for clinical house staff (resident physicians); and 73 percent for nurses. The rate for all faculty and staff was 66 percent.

“Vaccination of health care workers is a patient safety issue,” said William Schaffner, M.D., professor and chair of Preventive Medicine and professor of Medicine. “I believe it is both an ethical and professional obligation for all health care workers to be vaccinated against influenza.”

Toward that end, Swift and Talbot are chairing a committee charged with developing a universal influenza vaccination program.

“In general, faculty and staff will be expected to either receive the vaccine or meet one of a few specified exemptions,” Talbot said.

Employees also are encouraged to report that they have received a flu shot by logging onto the Occupational Health Clinic site.

While the current vaccine is not perfect — it’s about 62 percent effective, according to the CDC — “it is the best vaccine we have right now,” Schaffner added.

“We’re obligated to use it so we can provide, within the limits of current science, the safest possible environment for our patients.”

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