National Influenza Vaccination Week: Interview with HHS Regional Health Administrator

Dalton G. Paxman, PhD, FCPP

For National Influenza Vaccination Week (NIVW), we interviewed Dalton G. Paxman, PhD, FCPP, Regional Health Administrator for the mid-Atlantic region, where he oversees public health initiatives for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health (OASH), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). NIVW is a national observance that was established to highlight the importance of continuing influenza vaccination, as well as fostering greater use of flu vaccine after the holiday season into January and beyond.

1. How is your office involved in seasonal influenza vaccination? Do you have any programs or activities planned for National Influenza Vaccination Week?

We have been conducting media interviews trying to get the word out on National Influenza Vaccination Week (NIVW), which is December 2-8. We also sponsored a number of flu clinics in the mid-Atlantic region, especially in the Delaware Valley. We are especially working hard to increase influenza vaccination in communities of color, especially African-Americans, where large disparities exist between them and Caucasian populations. We are also targeting pregnant women and healthcare providers, who have lower rates of getting the vaccine than we would like.

2. Now that we’ve entered influenza season, what kind of influenza activity is our region seeing?

Currently, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey are all classified as having “sporadic” activity. In contrast, some southern states are seeing increasing activity, local and regional activity in VA and North Carolina, and widespread activity in South Carolina.

3. Are supplies of influenza vaccine plentiful – in all its formulations?

Yes, there is plenty of vaccine—over 140 million doses have been distributed across the country.

4.  What are the options for seniors, in terms of vaccines available to them? In terms of accessibility – where should they seek them out? And generally, what coverage does Medicare provide for influenza vaccination?

People 65 years and older have two flu shots available to choose from – a regular dose flu vaccine and a newer flu vaccine designed for people 65 and older with a higher dose. The high dose vaccine is associated with a stronger immune response to vaccination. However, whether the stronger immune response results in greater protection against influenza illness in older adults is not yet known. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and its Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices have not expressed a preference for either vaccine.

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, Medicare covers both flu and pneumonia vaccines with no co-pay or deductible. The flu shot is available at doctor’s offices, health centers, and pharmacies.

5.  It’s been a few years since flu vaccination has been recommended universally for everyone 6 months and older. Have these recommendations effectively trickled down to people who formerly weren’t recommended to be vaccinated? How is uptake among these groups – such as adults up to age 50 or so, teenagers, and younger schoolchildren? 

Everyone 6 months of age and older is recommended to get the 2012-2013 flu vaccine.

Immunization rates for influenza have been going up over the past few years. In particular, we have seen increases in rates for Hispanic populations, pregnant women and healthcare provides, but more needs to be done.

6. How does your HHS region compare in influenza vaccine uptake compared with other HHS regions?

Of the ten HHS regions, Region 3, (consisting of DE, MD, PA, VA, WV, and Washington DC) has the second best rate of influenza vaccination; only the New England region has a better vaccination rate.

7. We often hear a lot of misconceptions about influenza vaccination. What are the most common misconceptions that you hear, and how do you try to counter them?

Can I get the flu from the vaccine? 

No, a flu shot cannot cause flu illness. The influenza viruses contained in a flu shot are inactivated (killed), which means they cannot cause infection. The nasal spray contains weakened live viruses. The weakened viruses only cause infection in the cooler temperatures found in the nose. The viruses cannot infect the lungs or other areas in the body where warmer temperatures exist.

Is the vaccine safe? 

Seasonal flu vaccines have a very good safety track record. Although there are possible side effects to vaccination, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration closely monitor the safety of seasonal flu vaccines.

We encourage people to visit www.flu.gov for more information and www.vaccines.gov for information on all vaccines.  Both websites are available in Spanish. 

8. Does HHS encourage its staff to be vaccinated against influenza? How?

Yes.  Our Federal Occupational Health program offers flu shots at no cost to HHS Federal employees and HHS contractors.

About Dalton G. Paxman, PhD, FCPP

Dalton Paxman is the Regional Health Administrator for the mid-Atlantic region (Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia,  West Virginia), where he oversees public health initiatives for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health (OASH), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).  He administers regional public health programs in Minority Health, Population Affairs, Women’s Health, Medical Reserve Corps, and the HIV/AIDS Regional Resource Network.  He is also a Fellow in the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the oldest medical institution of its kind in the United States.  

From 1996-2000, Dr. Paxman served as the Senior Environmental Health Advisor, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, providing advice to the Assistant Secretary for Health/Surgeon General on environmental health issues.  He was the senior staff on key multi-agency environmental health and science policy initiatives, including the President’s Food Safety Initiative and the President’s Task Force on Children’s Environmental Health and Safety.  He also served as the Department’s liaison to the National Science and Technology Council for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. 

Dr. Paxman was a Senior Policy Analyst in the Environment Program at the Office of Technology Assessment in the U.S. Congress, where he directed congressional studies in the areas of health risk assessment research, comparative risk assessment, and environmental regulations.  He was a research toxicologist and a post-doctoral scholar for the UC Berkeley, School of Public Health.  He received his PhD in Environmental Health Sciences from the Johns Hopkins University, School of Hygiene and Public Health, where he received the Kruze Award for Excellence in Environmental Health Research.