Health Workers Near 50 Percent Vaccination Rate

Dr. William Schaffner, president-elect of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, expressed optimism Wednesday that the seasonal flu vaccination rate for U.S. health workers will be higher than in 2008. The peak months for seasonal flu are right around the corner.

Health care employers should redouble their efforts to encourage employees to be vaccinated against seasonal influenza, experts including Dr. William Schaffner, president-elect of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, said Wednesday during a RAND Corp. teleconference. Schaffner, professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University's Department of Medicine, said when all is said and done, he is optimistic the 2009 seasonal flu vaccination rate for U.S. health workers will be higher than the 2008 rate.

Vaccinations around the country leveled off by mid-November, RAND Corp. economist Katherine Harris, Ph.D., said. While some shortages of vaccine have been reported, more supplies will be available, Schaffner promised.

Currently, 49 percent of health care workers (HCWs) surveyed had been vaccinated as of mid-November, and another 12 percent said they intend to be. That leaves 39 percent who do not intend to be vaccinated. Those numbers are better than the U.S. adult population as a whole, but health care workers are an identified high-risk group for which seasonal and H1N1 influenza vaccination are highly recommended. Another high-risk group, U.S. adults 50 and older, are roughly where HCWs are, according to the presenters: 43 percent of older adults had been vaccinated by mid-November against seasonal flu, 19 percent said they intend to be, and 36 percent do not intend to be vaccinated. While 32 percent of the overall adult U.S. population had been vaccinated by mid-November, 51 percent indicated they don't intend to be vaccinated.

Schaffner and Litjen "L.J." Tan, MS, Ph.D., director of medicine and public health for the American Medical Association, said myths persist about the seasonal flu vaccine. For example, many who don't intend to be vaccinated say they don't need the vaccine, or they fear it will make them sick. Both are untrue. And people aren't forgoing the seasonal vaccine because they've received an H1N1 vaccine, said Schaffner.

"It's been a confusing influenza season," he said. "We need to protect ourselves with both vaccines. . . . The peak month for seasonal influenza in the United States each year is February. We will see seasonal influenza pick up speed in January and February."

Tan reiterated that seasonal flu killed an average of 36,000 Americans per year from 1990 to 1999. Flu is the sixth-leading cause of death nationwide, resulting in about 226,000 annual hospitalizations. Those who are sick with it miss three days of work because of the illness, on average, he said.

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