CDC: Not Enough Seniors Getting Flu Shot

Only two-thirds immunized against it, and fewer for pneumonia

THURSDAY, Nov. 14, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Flu shot coverage for America's seniors continues to fall well shy of government goals, reaching only 65 percent last year, health officials said today.

The 2001 rate was 2 percentage points below that in 2000, marking the first drop in flu coverage since 1993. The government wants at least 90 percent of older Americans immunized annually against flu by the year 2010.

Officials attributed the decline to production delays in the vaccine against the influenza virus. This year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expecting 93 million doses of the shot to be available, a record number, along with "several million" more the agency can buy from manufacturers if necessary.

People 65 and older are also coming up short on an identical national benchmark for another vaccine, this one against pneumococcal pneumonia. Though not as prolific a killer as influenza -- 3,400 fatalities a year among the elderly vs. roughly 20,000 for the flu -- the bacterial disease is nevertheless a major preventable source of death and disability.

In 2001, officials said, 60 percent of Americans 65 and up said they'd ever received the one-time pneumococcal shot, compared with 54 percent the year before. The injection is specifically recommended for older people, as well as certain younger people with chronic ailments like diabetes and heart disease, and other illnesses that put them at increased risk of serious pneumonia.

The CDC, which issued the report, stressed that while the best time to get immunized against the flu is in October and early November, later is better than never. "It's not too late to get vaccinated," said James Singleton, a CDC epidemiologist and flu expert.

The new figures come from a telephone survey of almost 40,000 men and women 65 and older living in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, as well as Puerto Rico and Guam. Flu shot coverage of the elderly ranged from a low of 36.8 percent in Puerto Rico to 79 percent in Hawaii. For pneumococcus, the low was 24.1 percent, again in Puerto Rico, while Oregon led the nation with a rate of almost 71 percent.

People who received one of the shots were more likely to get the other, officials said. Blacks and Hispanics were much less likely than whites to be vaccinated, while those with more years of education were more likely to report being immunized against the infections.

Flu season typically peaks between late December and early March. As of Nov. 2, 14 U.S. states and territories reported sporadic flu activity, and 34 reported no signs of the virus. Louisiana has seen "regional" outbreaks of the infection, the second highest level of surveillance. Singleton called the pattern "nothing unusual," and added that this year's vaccine matches the strains of virus circulating.

The CDC has launched a pilot program to improve flu and pneumococcal vaccination rates among blacks and Hispanics. The two-year demonstration project will begin over the next two months in five cities: Milwaukee, Chicago, San Antonio, Jackson, Miss., and Rochester, N.Y.

Curtis Allen, a CDC spokesman, said the agency has awarded grants of between $200,000 and $400,000 to these cities to develop plans to raise immunization rates. The first step will be to "organize partnerships" of community groups, churches, health care providers, insurers, and other entities that might help promote awareness of the shots, Allen said.

What To Do

For more on flu, try the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization. To learn more about pneumococcal pneumonia, visit the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

SOURCES: Jim Singleton, epidemiologist, and Curtis Allen, spokesman, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; Nov. 15, 2002, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report
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