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Vaccination still key defense as flu season continues

Feb. 14, 2013, 10:39 AM

As is the case throughout the country, this year’s flu season in Middle Tennessee is hitting elderly people particularly hard.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center, for example, is “seeing more severe disease in older persons,” said Tom Talbot, M.D., MPH, chief hospital epidemiologist.

Vanderbilt experts say it’s still not too late to get vaccinated against influenza. (photo by Susan Urmy)

That’s because most people have little immunity to this season’s prevalent strain of influenza — H3N2 — unless they were vaccinated this year, he said.

The elderly are among the most vulnerable to complications of the flu.

Meanwhile, the percentage of tests conducted in the Medical Center’s Virology Lab that are positive for influenza remained elevated — at 12.5 percent during the first seven days of February, compared to 3 percent for November, said Jim Chappell, M.D. Ph.D., the lab’s medical director.

Talbot said it’s still not too late to get vaccinated against influenza. “Of course it will take two weeks for immunity to build up, so don’t expect immediate protection,” he said. But, “it is still definitely worth getting vaccinated.”

The overall influenza vaccination rate for VUMC faculty and staff rose by 5 percent in the past month, to 71 percent as of Feb. 8. Rates were higher for physicians (88 percent) and nurses (78 percent), according to Melanie Swift, M.D., director of the Vanderbilt Occupational Health Clinic.

Swift and Talbot chair a steering committee that is spearheading efforts to achieve near-universal vaccination next year.

“It will be a ‘universal’ rather than a ‘mandatory’ program, which means participation will be required but vaccination will not be mandated if an individual has a strong objection,” Swift said.

“People who do not want the vaccine will be able to obtain an exemption for medical contraindications, religious beliefs and personal beliefs,” she said. “Details of that (exemption) process are being worked out now.”

The Occupational Health Clinic has a list of sites where employees can get their flu shots without an appointment.

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