Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Public health panel recommends flu vaccine for everyone

Global experiences with swine flu convince health panel to change recommendation and urge everyone to get flu vaccine.

An advisory panel to the nation’s chief disease tracker is urging all people above the age of 6 months to get the regular flu vaccine starting with the 2010-2011 flu season. Right now, the official flu shot recommendation is for children age 6 months to 18 years, the elderly, and anyone in between who is otherwise at risk for complications, such as people with asthma or HIV. The new recommendation would be for all persons 6 months and older to get the regular flu vaccine regardless of the otherwise healthiness and hardiness of their immune system. The recommendation needs official approval from the directors of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services, which is expected to happen next month.

Members of the advisory committee who voted for the change were particularly concerned about the need to protect people 19 to 49 years of age, who were hard hit by the 2009 swine flu pandemic. Another reason panel members gave for universally recommending the flu vaccine is that many people who are considered “higher risk” are unaware of their vulnerability or that they are recommended to get the vaccine. The panel also said that the world’s experience with the 2009 swine flu pandemic taught them that some people who don’t currently fall into one of the specific recommendation categories for the vaccine may also be at higher risk of serious flu-related complications, including those people who are obese, post-partum women and people in certain racial or ethnic groups.

But lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the vaccine advisory panel said it is important to issue a “simple and clear” message about the importance of the flu vaccine in order to “remove impediments” and encourage more people to protect themselves. This is a good thing, especially after a year of watching, awe-struck, as young and healthy people not historically considered at risk for flu complications were struck down and hospitalized within hours of contracting swine flu. Seasonal and swine flu are different creatures, but the experience appears to have taught public health officials not to assume the relative immunity of healthy people against the flu.

We need less confusion surrounding the need for flu shots; we also need more flu shots. Any confusion eased by the new recommendations will just be compounded if public health officials fail to make enough vaccine to cover the people they recommended for the shot. Last year it took longer that expected to create the swine flu vaccine, which led to long angry lines of people and even panic. Many people were turned away, some tearfully, by public health officials who were forced to ration to the shots for the most vulnerable populations. Those people were assured that more vaccine on the way, and indeed it eventually arrived.

In releasing the news of its new recommendation, the advisory panel acknowledged that more doses will be required to cover all adults. However, the panel said more licensed types and brands of seasonal flu vaccines will be available in the 2010-11 flu season than has ever been available before.

Let’s hope so. Will you get the shot?

Photo Credit: alvi2047

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