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Time to get a flu shot, health officials say

Ben Schmitt
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Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, receives his annual flu shot during a news conference Sept. 29, 2016, in Washington. Frieden took part in the news conference to highlight that millions of people get sick, hundreds of thousands are hospitalized and thousands to tens of thousands of people die from flu and related complications every year.

Health officials are concerned by a seasonal decrease in flu vaccinations — especially among older people — and want people to take advantage of a plentiful supply of vaccines.

Estimates from the 2015-16 season, released Thursday, revealed a drop in adults 50 or older who received flu vaccines. Overall, about 46 percent of Americans — or 144 million people — received flu vaccines during the 2015-16 season, down by 1.5 percent from the previous season, according to Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

He noted a 3.4 percent drop in vaccinations among people ages 50 to 64 and a 3.3 percent drop among those 65 and older.

Frieden said people need to take the flu virus seriously, especially the elderly population.

He said a 5 percent increase in people getting flu vaccines would prevent 800,000 illnesses and 10,000 hospitalizations in the United States.

“Flu is serious. Flu is unpredictable,” Frieden said during a joint news conference with the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. “Flu often does not get enough respect.”

Children between 6 months and 23 months old were the top group during the past season to receive vaccinations: 75 percent, which exceeded the CDC’s goal of 70 percent for all ages.

Frieden said he hopes children don’t shun the vaccine this season, because nasal sprays like FluMist are not available. Many children prefer the mist to the shot, he said, but officials have determined the spray to be ineffective. An average of 20,000 children are hospitalized annually with the flu.

Denise Addis, director of value-based quality at Excela Health in Greensburg, said she thinks most parents will still get their children immunized.

“People still die in 2016 from flu complications,” Addis said. “The vaccine is a quick and easy way to prevent various complications from occurring and obviously save lives.”

The flu kills more than 30,000 people a year on average, according to the CDC. Flu activity usually begins in October, peaking between December and March.

The flu infected 3,146 people in Allegheny County last season and 479 people in Westmoreland County.

Dr. Brian Lamb, an Allegheny Health Network internal medicine specialist, said plenty of vaccines are available locally.

“Even if you have never had the flu before, that does not mean you are immune to it,” Lamb said. “Every single person protected is one less chance for the flu to spread.”

Frieden said the vaccines appear to be a good match for the various expected strains of flu this season. He said it’s too early to predict whether this will be a mild or severe flu season overall.

The CDC estimated that 168 million doses of flu vaccine will be available this season across the country, and 93 million have been distributed.

“There’s plenty for everybody,” he said.

Dr. Richard Zimmerman, professor of family medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and Graduate School of Public Health, runs the Pittsburgh arm of a group that studies flu vaccine effectiveness for the CDC.

UPMC and Pitt are part of the U.S. Flu Vaccine Effectiveness Network, which collects data for the CDC from people who visit doctor’s offices or hospitals with flu-like symptoms. Patients who have received the flu vaccine are compared to those who are not vaccinated.

Zimmerman said the vaccine is generally about 60 percent effective.

“This year, I have no reason to believe that number won’t be accurate,” he said. “I have not heard of any mismatch with the vaccine occurring.”

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or [email protected].

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