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Nothing to Sneeze At: The 2013-2014 Flu Season

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By Melissa Hagstrom, contributor

October 28, 2013 - As the peak flu season approaches, health care practitioners and public health organizations are busy bracing for the onslaught of influenza cases. Yet many hope that with increased education, prevention and vaccination efforts, we may be able to see a milder 2013-2014 U.S. flu season than we have experienced in the past.

Jason McDonald, CDC: Nurses have lower rates of influenza vaccination than physicians.
Jason McDonald, spokesperson for the CDC, said that nurses are less likely to participate in annual influenza vaccinations than physicians, pharmacists and nurse practitioners.

“We are early in the flu season, and with the [recent government] furlough, we’ve just re-started our influenza surveillance activity,” reported Jason McDonald, public affairs officer for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “As normally, around October we are starting to see an uptick in cases of reported flu from the states, but it’s still at very low levels. Flu outbreaks can happen as early as October, but most of the time flu activity peaks in January or later.”

“As many of the scientists around here say, it’s a very exciting time when it comes to influenza vaccines because there are so many on the market and so many available for use depending on age and, of course, indication.”

There are several vaccine options for the 2013-2014 flu season, including traditional trivalent vaccines which are made to protect against three different flu viruses, and the new quadrivalent vaccine, which is designed to protect against four different flu viruses and is available for the first time this year. The CDC does not recommend one vaccine over the other.

Nurses on the frontlines of flu prevention

As always, nurses can be influential figures in fighting the flu this season.

Adam Sachs, ANA: Nurses can increase influenza vaccination rates by educating patients.
Adam Sachs, spokesperson for the American Nurses Association, said that nurses have a key role to play in flu prevention by raising influenza vaccination rates through patient education.

One of nurses’ biggest roles in flu prevention and vaccination efforts is the education role, said Adam Sachs, spokesperson for the American Nurses Association (ANA).

“Part of a nurse’s job is to help with educating their patients, providing resources and making sure they know how to follow-up after visits. They have a lot of chances to talk with patients and families on flu prevention measures and how to stay healthy,” Sachs said. “They can also play a role in educating their colleagues, fellow nurses and other health care workers in their workplaces.”

Nurses and other health care professionals will be the ones who encounter those with influenza, McDonald explained, adding, “In September, we recently published our influenza vaccination coverage rates for 2012-2013, and one of those components was health care workers. We found that 72 percent of health care workers have received an influenza vaccination in the last season, which is great.”  Yet the CDC and ANA are pushing for even better rates this year.

The Internet panel survey was conducted by the CDC and gathered answers from 1,944 self-selected healthcare personnel. Although the 72 percent who reported getting the flu vaccine was a sizeable increase from the 66.9 percent reported in the previous season and an all-time high, the study revealed some interesting findings on which health care workers were most likely to get the flu shot:

•    Physicians – more than 92 percent
•    Pharmacists – 89 percent
•    Nurse practitioners / Physician assistants – 88.5 percent
•    Nurses – 84.8 percent

According to McDonald, the CDC has not identified why nurses report lower vaccination rates than doctors, but it’s something they may delve into in future research. It is important to note that coverage did increase year-over-year with all health care occupations.

“We have a Healthy People goal of 70 percent by 2020 for health care workers, and they’ve beat that by seven years,” McDonald said.

The National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) recently held its 2013 influenza press conference where healthcare leaders including Howard K. Koh, MD, assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and Anne Schuchat, MD, RADM, USPHS, assistant surgeon general, U.S. Public Health Service, encouraged all individuals age 6 months and older to get vaccinated against influenza annually.

Sachs added that nurses can also play a key role in helping dispel common myths around vaccines, something that the NFID addressed in the September press event.

“The seasonal influenza vaccine has been proven through research to be safe and effective, and really a pretty easy way to prevent illness,” Sachs said.

Recent findings about the flu 

Although some may not consider influenza a serious disease, a new report from the CDC has called attention to the fact that it can have deadly consequences, even for healthy children.  According to CDC data between October 2004 and September 2012, 830 children died from flu-related complications.  Most of the children who died had not had a flu shot, and 43 percent of them were considered healthy, with no serious medical conditions prior to contracting the virus.

In another study, published in the October 23-30 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), researchers reported that the influenza vaccine may have additional health benefits besides flu prevention.

The study found that receiving an influenza vaccination was associated with a lower risk of major adverse cardiovascular events such as heart failure or hospitalization for heart attack, with the greatest treatment effect seen among patients with recent acute coronary syndrome. The researchers found that patients who received the vaccine were 55 percent less likely to have a serious heart event than patients in the control group.

“The flu is always unpredictable and every season is somewhat different. I think it’s important for nurses to consider getting vaccinated and I think it’s important for them to educate the patients they see on the importance of vaccination,” McDonald concluded.

Find more information from the CDC:
•    General flu information, including U.S. flu activity and surveillance
•    Specific information for health professionals
•    Information for patients, including a vaccine finder - 

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