"Don't hesitate. Vaccinate!" In September, at the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases Influenza Press Conference at the National Press Club, I had the pleasure of announcing this season's annual influenza (flu) vaccination campaign for everyone 6 months of age and older. At this event, I was also pleased to launch a new online mapping tool developed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to help track flu vaccination at a community level in adults 65 and older.
Years of research have shown that flu vaccination is the most effective way to protect people from the flu. Adults 65 years and older are an especially vulnerable population, at greater risk of serious complications from the flu compared with young, healthy adults. It's estimated that 90 percent of seasonal flu-related deaths, and more than 60 percent of flu-related hospitalizations in the United States each year, occur in people 65 years and older. While vaccination rates continue to increase, we are still well below our Healthy People 2020 target of 90 percent vaccination coverage for those in this age group. We also continue to witness racial and ethnic disparities in adult flu vaccination. The Affordable Care Act places specific emphasis on prevention, ensuring that everyone has timely access to many preventive services at no cost.
While the national numbers offer a broad snapshot of flu vaccination coverage across the country, those working at the community level often lack the specific local data. Such information can help identify populations with lower vaccination coverage and higher disparities between different racial/ethnic groups.
In an effort to close this gap, the HHS National Vaccine Program Office, in partnership with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, developed a new flu vaccination mapping tool that is now available to all. We hope it will be especially helpful for local public health leaders, health care providers and researchers. By tracking Medicare Fee-for-Service claims, updated every week, the tool provides up-to-date flu vaccination claims information for Medicare beneficiaries in every community in the United States. While these data don't convey data for all populations in a given locality, it does provide an excellent snapshot of vaccination coverage for the group at greatest risk for complications -- those over the age of 65. The map also displays flu vaccination claims data for specific racial or ethnic populations within a state or community, thereby demonstrating if there are disparities in the flu vaccination claims rate.
We believe this tool will help us track national progress toward higher flu vaccination coverage for those 65 and older while offering timely and relevant local information. Identifying specific communities (or particular groups within those communities) that may be undervaccinated can catalyze public health efforts to make sure everyone who needs the flu vaccine can get one. We hope that viewing this timely information in this simple manner can convey information easily, yet effectively, to motivate action and positive change.
In addition, public health workers, community organizations and researchers who are eager to help their communities can use these data to generate innovative strategies for better prevention. We hope that making these data available to all will stimulate broader collaboration and commitment to public health. Please visit www.vaccines.gov to see the tool in action. We hope it will make a difference for you and your community.
Follow Dr. Howard K. Koh on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@HHS_DrKoh