Health

Did low vaccination rates help make the last flu season so deadly?

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By Maggie Fox

Only 37 percent of Americans got vaccinated against flu last season, just as one of the deadliest flu season in decades hit, health officials reported Thursday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published its final estimates on the past flu season on Thursday. They show a severe influenza epidemic hit just as fewer Americans got the vaccine.

“Flu vaccination coverage among adults was 37.1 percent, a decrease of 6.2 percentage points from the previous flu season,” the CDC said in its latest report.

The result: More than 79,000 people died, close to 1 million ended up in the hospital and 48 million people got sick. Adult flu deaths are estimated but the CDC counts every child who dies of flu. Last season, 183 children died of influenza, the final numbers show.

Most were not vaccinated.

“Imagine being the parent of a child that died of influenza and had not had their child vaccinated,” said Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

And many deaths were among younger adults. “An estimated 10,300 deaths occurred among working age adults (aged 18–64 years), an age group that often has low influenza vaccination,” the CDC said.

The CDC found 30 million people aged 18 to 64 got sick with flu last season. Close to 12 million children 17 and younger got sick.

Did the flu vaccine work?

Influenza vaccines are notoriously poor at preventing infection, but last year’s flu vaccine lowered the risk of infection by about 40 percent.

But early estimates suggested, incorrectly, that it was even less effective, and surveys showed many people skipped their flu shots because they did not think they would work.

“At the very beginning of the vaccination season last year, there were widely distributed reports that the vaccine used in Australia was only 10 percent effective, and I think, by golly, that turned a lot of people off,” Schaffner said.

And studies also show that even if flu vaccines do not completely protect against infection, they do lower the severity if someone does get sick, and significantly reduce the risk of death.

“We don’t give the vaccine sufficient credit,” Schaffner said. “It does have the capacity to make the illness that you are having less severe. You are less likely to get the complications of pneumonia and having to go to the hospital, and you are less likely to die.”

Anti-vaccine rhetoric also did not help, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials said.

“The false science being spread erodes trust in the public health system,” ASTHO CEO Michael Fraser said in a statement.

“Clearly, the anti-vaccination movement is taking advantage of the current climate of government distrust and the trend toward believing political statements over scientific ones to question vaccine safety.”

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