There's been a steady rise in the number of Americans getting an annual flu vaccination, the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) announced today.
Last flu season, about 130.9 million Americans, or 43 percent of the U.S. population, received a flu shot. That's about 8 million more than the previous season, said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
While researchers can't predict exactly what this flu season will hold, "We can say with certainly that the best way to protect yourself, your family and your community is to get a flu shot," Frieden said at a NFID news conference today.
“For most people, the flu makes them sick for a few days, but for others — especially children, the elderly and people with underlying health conditions — it can be life-threatening," Frieden said.
Last year, the CDC expanded its recommendation of who should get the flu shot to include everyone 6 months old and older.
This universal recommendation means the general public does not need to think about whether they should get vaccinated, "The answer is yes," said Dr. William Schaffner, president of NFID and chairman of the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University. "Our goal is to make annual influenza vaccination a no-brainer," Schaffner said.
To show his commitment to the cause, Frieden received his flu vaccination on-camera at the conference. NFID encouraged leaders in the community, including health care professionals, school principals and business leaders, to "lead by example" and get vaccinated.
Frieden emphasized there is enough vaccine to go around. More than 85 million doses are available now, and the agency anticipates 170 million will be made available this year. People can get their shots in doctors' offices, public health clinics, pharmacies and even retail stores, among other facilities.
For the first time, four types of flu shots are available: the traditional vaccine, a nasal spray, a high-dose injection designed for people aged 65 and older, and a new "intradermal" vaccine that is administered just under the skin with a small needle.
The intradermal vaccine is recommended for people ages 18 to 65. Schaffner, who has received a dummy shot with this vaccine, said he didn't even realize the injection had occurred. "[It] was 'ouchless' completely," he said.
The public health officials also stressed the importance of vaccination for pregnant women, who are at increased risk for complications from the flu. About 49 percent received an influenza shot during the 2010-2011 season, which was about triple the percentage who received it before the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, Frieden said. However, public health officials would like to see a vaccination rate closer to 80 percent in this group.
The vaccine is not only safe and effective for pregnant women and their unborn children, it has been shown to be associated with lower rates of preterm birth and low birth weight, said Dr. Richard Beigi, an assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of Pittsburgh.
In a typical year, influenza causes 200,000 hospitalizations, according to the NFID. Between 1976 and 2006, flu-associated deaths in the U.S. ranged from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000, according to the CDC. If pregnant women become seriously ill from the virus, they have a 20 percent risk of dying.
In addition to receiving a flu shot, the CDC recommends Americans practice good hygiene, including hand- washing and covering a cough, to protect against the virus.
Pass it on: If you're older than 6 months of age, you should get a flu shot this season.