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'Tis the Season to Fight Flu Fatigue

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In the midst of flu season, we, at the Trust for America's Health, want to remind everyone that a flu shot is good for you and those around you...your children, your grandparents, your barista, i.e., everyone you come into contact with.

The flu, including H1N1, is largely preventable with a vaccine, yet millions of Americans get needlessly sick.

Think you can slouch off the flu? Well, each year the flu kills between 3,000 and 49,000 Americans and costs the country more than $10 billion in lost productivity and another $16 billion in potential earnings. Yet, according to a recent poll by Consumer Reports, only around 37 percent of Americans said they would get this season's flu shot.

That number is entirely too low.

In light of the season, TFAH released a report today - entitled Fighting Flu Fatigue - that includes data and lessons learned from the 2009-2010 H1N1 pandemic and outlines recommendations for future flu policies - including ways to build on the momentum from the H1N1 response to increase vaccination rates and preparedness for health emergencies.

As everyone was made aware last year, the H1N1 pandemic was a big deal. Even though it was a relatively moderate pandemic, H1N1 did have a serious impact. It infected around 20 percent of Americans, hospitalized nearly a quarter million Americans, and led to around 12,000 deaths. Compared to a regular seasonal flu, more people were hospitalized, and the number of people under the age of 65 who died from flu-related complications was much higher than usual. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of children who died was at least 340 and could be as high as 1,880.

About the only good thing that came out of the pandemic was the real-world, nationwide test of our ability to respond to a public health emergency. It revealed where investments in preparedness have paid off and where vulnerabilities still remain.

So now we have a decision: we could go back to a national complacency around the flu or we could build on the momentum of the pandemic response efforts to help spare millions of Americans from suffering yearly from the flu.

The path we choose has implications way beyond the seasonal flu. Building on the work we've done would also better prepare the country for any and all future disease outbreaks we may face - including the possibility of a really severe pandemic flu.

H1N1 Hospitalizations Higher; Vaccinations Lower for Minorities

The report really shines a light on the significant differences in vaccination rates among minorities and Whites. One of the most striking results of the pandemic was that the H1N1-related hospitalization rates for African-Americans, Hispanics, and American Indian/Alaska Natives were nearly two to one higher than for Whites - yet their vaccination rates continue to trail.

According to the report:

  • White hospitalization rates were 16.3 per 100,000 people;
  • African American hospitalization rates were 29.7 per 100,000 people;
  • H1N1 vaccination rates were 9.8 percent lower for African-American adults and 4.2 percent lower for African-American children than for Whites;
  • Seasonal flu vaccination rates were 16.5 percent lower for African-American adults and 5.6 percent lower for African-American children than for Whites;
  • Hispanic hospitalization rates were 30.7 percent per 100,000 people;
  • H1N1 vaccination rates were 11.5 percent lower for Hispanic adults than for Whites, although rates were 5.5 percent higher for Hispanic children; and
  • Seasonal flu vaccination rates were 21.7 percent lower for Hispanic adults and 2.6 percent lower for Hispanic children than for Whites.

We know historically that minority groups have lower vaccination rates compared with Whites and higher rates of mortality and pneumonia associated with the seasonal flu - but the H1N1 pandemic drove the point home - and shows us that this is a systemic and deep public health concern.

What We Can Do...In Addition to Getting a Flu Shot

This year, for the first time, the CDC has recommended that all Americans older than six months should get vaccination against the flu. To further combat the flu, increase vaccination rates and build on the momentum from the H1N1 response, the report recommends creating a major campaign that provides:

  • Education about the need for flu shots, focused on why everyone should get immunized and the safety of the shots;
  • Special, concerted outreach to minority groups. It is particularly important to use targeted, culturally-appropriate messages and messengers that encourage vaccinations and address negative beliefs and misinformation;
  • Increased easy access to flu shots, even to people who are uninsured or do not receive regular medical care; and
  • Incentives for health care workers to be vaccinated. Last season, only 62 percent of health care workers were vaccinated against the seasonal flu and only 37 percent received an H1N1 flu shot by January 2010.

Last year, communities came together to fight against H1N1. It is time to build off that success to ensure more and more people get vaccinated against the flu. It's pretty simple, relatively painless, and does not get you sick. In fact, it will protect you and loved ones from potentially getting seriously ill from the flu.

Please check out the report for additional recommendations. It was supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and is available at http://healthyamericans.org/report/78/flu-2010.