For National Influenza Vaccination Week (NIVW), we interviewed Dalton G. Paxman, PhD, FCPP, Regional Health Administrator for the mid-Atlantic region of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). NIVW is a national observance 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.
- Why is it important to get an annual flu vaccine?
Each flu season, the flu virus causes millions of illnesses, hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations and thousands or sometimes tens of thousands of deaths. Getting vaccinated protects you and the people around you, including those who are more vulnerable to serious flu illness, like babies and young children, older people, and people with certain chronic health conditions.
- Who should get a flu shot? Who shouldn’t?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends annual flu vaccination for everyone 6 months and older, including pregnant women, as long as flu viruses are circulating, which means it’s not too late to get vaccinated, even in January or later. However, there are groups of individuals who should not get the flu vaccine. Those groups include:
- Children younger than 6 months old
- People with severe, life-threatening allergies to flu vaccine or any of its ingredients
Additionally, people who have an allergy to eggs or other vaccine ingredients, people who have ever had Guillain-Barre Syndrome, and people who are feeling ill should consult with their doctor before getting a flu shot.
- Where are flu shots administered?
- The 2017 flu season in Australia, which ended in October, was severe, with more than 2.5 times the number of laboratory-confirmed influenza cases than in 2016. Our flu season in the Northern Hemisphere often tracks that in the Southern Hemisphere. Please share any predictions, concerns, or other thoughts about what we might expect here for our flu season based on what we saw in Australia.
We can’t predict exactly what will happen with this influenza season in the United States: there are too many variables for us to do that. However, there is a chance that the United States flu season could mirror the last flu season in Australia. If it does, then we would expect a great many influenza cases caused by the H3N2 strain, which can cause severe illness. That’s why we hope everyone who is recommended to receive the flu vaccine does in fact get vaccinated.
- How does our HHS region stack up against other HHS regions in terms of flu vaccination rates for children and adults? Are there any interesting trends?
U.S. flu vaccination rates on the whole have remained relatively stagnant over the past seven years with the following average rates of season flu vaccination coverage:
- 56.5% among children (6 months – 17 years)
- 41.7% among adults (≥18 years)
Vaccination claims data from Medicare beneficiaries, who are individuals who are over the age of 65 and certain younger individuals with disabilities, provides some interesting insight into flu vaccination rates among older adults. Region III has a relatively high percentage of Medicare beneficiaries receiving the annual flu shot – with 50-60% of DE, MD, PA, VA, and Washington beneficiaries receiving the flu shot. West Virginia, however, dips a bit lower with 40-50% of its Medicare beneficiaries receiving the flu vaccine.
Other HHS regions, like Regions IV, VI, VIII, IX, and X reflect the average of the country, with 40-50% of the Medicare population receiving the flu shot. Regions II and V are similar to Region III with flu vaccine rates slightly higher than the national average at 50-60%.
- Where would HHS like to see improvement in vaccination rates, and how can HHS and its partners address these gaps?
HHS is currently focused on increasing adult vaccination rates. The regional offices are working in direct partnership with the National Vaccine Program Office to encourage the implementation of the National Adult Immunization Plan. Region III works with our state immunization directors to learn what the real vaccine issues are at the state and local level. To address the gaps that exist in communicating vaccine information with the adult population, Region III is hosting a region-wide in-person vaccine meeting in March 2018 to strengthen communication about adult immunizations.
- What does your office in particular do to support flu season activities?
Our office distributes up-to-date flu resources in the form of toolkits and talking points whether for flu season in general or for National Influenza Vaccine Week. We also partner with the Office of Minority Health and Walgreens Pharmacy during their annual flu vaccine voucher program, which provides free flu shots for uninsured individuals. Lastly, while we remain engaged with our immunization partners year round, during flu season we provide additional outreach and support to whether in the form of targeted emails, newsletters, social media posts, or interviews such as this one!
- Have you and your family gotten flu shots this season?
Yes! My family gets our flu shots every year. We understand the importance of not only protecting ourselves, but also protecting those around us. Getting a flu shot is the best way to prevent flu illness and serious flu complications, including those that can result in hospitalization.
- Where can people find reliable information about the flu vaccine?
People can find reliable information about the flu vaccine at the following websites: