THURSDAY, Sept. 23, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Recent flu seasons dominated by more severe strains of flu and an aging U.S. population that's more vulnerable to disease have caused a jump in the number of hospitalizations and deaths from the respiratory illness.
That's why it's crucial that people -- particularly those most vulnerable -- get a flu shot this fall, U.S. health officials said at a press conference Thursday in Washington, D.C.
"There has been a startling increase in the number of hospitalizations for flu, to approximately 200,000 last year, and Americans need to do better to protect themselves and their families," said Dr. Walter Orenstein, director of the National Immunization Program, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Annual hospitalizations for the flu now average approximately 200,000, up from 114,000 a few decades ago. And there were 36,000 deaths last year, compared to 20,000 annually just 20 years ago, said officials at the conference, which was sponsored by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and the National Coalition for Adult Immunization.
Those most vulnerable to the flu include people over age 65, pregnant women, young children, and those with chronic illnesses like asthma and diabetes, officials said.
Influenza has many symptoms, such as fever, chills, aches, and general malaise, Orenstein said, "but most concerning are its complications, including pneumonia and heart and lung disease."
This is especially true among those people over age 65, the group that accounted for more than 90 percent of the deaths from influenza last year, he said.
Small children are just as vulnerable to the effects of the flu, said Dr. Carol Baker, head of the section of pediatric infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
"The hospitalization rates of children under the age of 2 who have the flu are equal to the rates of those over 65," she said. Last year, 150 children -- whose average age was 3.8 years, and nearly half of whom were primarily healthy otherwise -- died because of influenza, Baker said.
Yet the rates of flu vaccination for these two groups is low, the officials said. Last year only 60 percent of those 65 and older received a flu shot, and only 4 percent of children between the ages of 6 months and 2 years were properly vaccinated.
One hundred million doses of the vaccine will be ready by the end of October -- 13 million more than last year, said Dr. Keiji Fukuda, an epidemiologist with the CDC. An unusually early and nasty outbreak, primarily confined to Colorado, led to a run on flu shots last year, prompting a shortage. The worst of the flu season tapered off by the end of December, though.
To better protect those most vulnerable, the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices has expanded its recommendations on who should get a flu shot this fall.
While last year the CDC "encouraged" flu shots for children aged 6 months to 2 years, it now "recommends" the shots for this age group. And the agency is recommending vaccines for all women planning a pregnancy or already pregnant. Previous recommendations included only women already pregnant.
Other groups of people who should get flu shots, according to the CDC: Everyone aged 50 or older; residents of nursing homes; adults and children with chronic disorders in their pulmonary or cardiovascular systems, including asthma; those with diabetes, anemia, and heart, kidney and liver disease, or AIDS; all health-care workers; and those in contact with children under the age of 6 months, including family members and day-care workers.
Among the hurdles the health community has to overcome in selling the public on the importance of flu shots are several misconceptions about the vaccine, Orenstein said.
"Flu shots cannot cause influenza -- there is no live influenza virus in the shot," he said. "The vaccine is not just for the frail and sick -- it is recommended for approximately 185 million Americans. Influenza can be very severe, leading to pneumonia other complications, and even death. And lastly, the vaccine is usually effective for most persons."
Some parents fear that one of the ingredients in the vaccine, a preservative called thimerosal, could be associated with autism. It's a concern that Baker said should not deter parents from vaccinating their small children.
Medical studies have "reported no credible evidence" of a link between thimerosal and autism, she said. And the "well-defined risk" of the dangers of influenza to small children outweigh the "theoretical risk" of thimerosal, she added.
Baker also said some vaccines are being produced this year without thimerosal. Parents can call ahead to their doctor to ask if that vaccine could be made available to their child.
To learn more about flu shots, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.