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Flu Shots Good for Business

They can mean a healthier work force, saving companies money

WEDNESDAY, Aug. 7, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Flu shots save lives, particularly among the elderly.

But they can also ensure a healthier work force, and that could save companies plenty of money by avoiding treatment costs and lost workdays, federal health officials say.

U.S. businesses could save as much as $12 billion annually by giving workers flu shots before they catch the bug, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Vaccinations have been shown to cut doctor visits by 34 percent to 44 percent, and lost workdays by 32 percent to 45 percent, the agency says.

"It could be a service for employees, and it will certainly save lost work hours," says Dr. Raymond Strikes, a researcher with the CDC. "The impact of the flu can be unpredictable."

The flu season runs from late December through March, and 10 percent to 20 percent of Americans fall victim to the germ each year, according to the CDC, which tracks the illness weekly in 122 cities. More than 110,000 people are hospitalized every year because of flu-related problems, and 20,000 Americans die annually from such complications, the agency says.

Cost savings from vaccinations, though, are hard to predict, Strikas says, because it depends on how badly the illness strikes.

"Flu varies a lot from year to year. You can have years where it really hits the country's health and economy, and then you have light years like the last two, when companies may not save money by offering vaccinations," he says.

Still, it behooves businesses to protect their workers, says Dr. Gordon S. Raskin, a San Francisco occupational health specialist who runs a vaccination company called On-Site Health.

"Preventing illness can be more gratifying than dealing with it in the ER trenches," he says. "Businesses can help people, and save some bucks at the same time."

The influenza virus, which affects the nose, throat and lungs, is generally spread by infected people coughing or sneezing in the presence of others. Common symptoms are headache, cough, stuffy nose, fever, exhaustion or muscle aches, although the virus can cause more serious complications.

While some people worry that flu shots will give them the flu, the CDC says that doesn't happen. Vaccinations generally work, and they are especially important for people at risk for complications from the virus.

"Studies of healthy young adults have shown flu vaccine to be 70 percent to 90 percent effective in preventing the flu. In the elderly and those with certain long-term medical conditions, the flu shot is often less effective in preventing illness. However, in the elderly, flu vaccine is very effective in reducing hospitalizations and death from flu-related causes," the agency says.

Although the CDC recommends the vaccine to most people, it suggests those who aren't in high-risk groups wait until November or December to get a flu shot. That gives those in danger of complications from the flu -- such as the elderly and those with chronic diseases -- the first chance at vaccination, Strikas says.

People shouldn't get the shot, however, if they're allergic to eggs, where the vaccine is cultured. The vaccine also should be avoided by those who've had past reactions to flu shots or have an acute illness with fever, according to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

To prepare a new vaccine every year, scientists in early spring begin to predict the strains of the virus that will become active in the coming flu season. Then by early summer, they settle on the vaccination formula, and a handful of companies begin producing the vaccine for distribution, starting in September.

In the last few years, delays in the process have created shortages. From 1999 to 2001, the number of doses administered hovered between 70 million and 80 million. This year, though, the CDC is expecting between 92 million and 97 million doses to be produced.

"The outlook is good this year," Strikas says.

What To Do

For answers to commonly asked questions about the flu, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To read the CDC's suggestions about vaccinations, click here. To track flu activity in your state, visit FluWatch.com.

SOURCES: Raymond Strikas, M.D., researcher, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; Gordon S. Raskin, M.D., occupational health specialist, San Francisco
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