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Why Flu Shots Are Up 3% from Last Year

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As flu activity starts to rise in parts of the country, about 40 percent of Americans have already received a flu shot this season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That's about 3 percentage points higher than the percentage of people vaccinated by the same time last year, said Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. The numbers were gathered around mid-November for both years.

The reason researchers are seeing an increase is that more adults are getting the vaccine, Schuchat said. Still, health officials say there is a lot of room for improvement.

"While many people are making a habit of getting a flu vaccine, far too many people remain unvaccinated," Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, said at a news conference today. [Flu Shot 2013-2014: Strains, Release Date & Side Effects]

Unlike last year, when flu season hit very early, this year's flu season hasn't taken off widely yet, "so it's not too late to get vaccinated," Schuchat said.

Researchers cannot predict the severity of this year's flu season yet, but flu activity often peaks in January and March, Schuchat said.

Right now, most regions of the country are experiencing normal flu activity, but health officials are seeing elevated levels of the flu in some Southeastern states, including Mississippi and Texas. So far this season, three children have died from influenza.

While there are a lot of things that are out of our control around the holidays, "protecting your family from flu is something you can control, and influenza vaccination is the best way to keep yourself and your family healthy," Schuchat said.

The CDC also released a report today (Dec. 12) highlighting the benefits of flu vaccination.

During last year's flu season (2012 to 2013) flu vaccination prevented 6.6 million people from getting sick with the flu, 3.2 million people from visiting their doctor with flu symptoms and 79,000 people from being hospitalized with the flu, according to the report.

That's the largest number of hospitalizations and illnesses prevented since the CDC started estimating so-called "averted illness," which was in 2006.

Part of the reason the numbers were so large was that flu season last year was relatively severe, Frieden said. (If there is a bad flu season, there will be both more flu illness, and more cases prevented). About 31.8 million people fell ill with the flu last season, and 381,000 people were hospitalized.

But health officials say that even more flu cases could have been prevented with higher vaccination rates. If 70 percent of people were vaccinated, an additional 4.4 million flu illnesses and 30,000 flu hospitalizations could have been prevented, Frieden said.

The CDC recommends flu vaccination for everyone ages 6 months and older.

Follow Rachael Rettner @RachaelRettner. Follow LiveScience @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on LiveScience.

Rachael has been with Live Science since 2010. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.