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Help protect patients against influenza virus this winter

By Dr. Robert R. Redfield

A new year is upon us, and with flu activity continuing to rise nationally, there’s no time like the present to take life-saving steps to prevent the flu.

Last season, we estimate that almost 80,000 died from flu; many of these cases could have been prevented by vaccination. This is a heartbreaking number, and a reminder that flu has a high mortality rate. While we can’t predict how severe this flu season may be, healthcare providers like you are central to ensuring we keep Americans healthy and protected against influenza.

The most important thing you can do is encourage flu vaccination for your patients six months and older. Flu vaccination prevents millions of illnesses and tens of thousands of hospitalizations each season. There are many flu vaccine options this year, all of which have been updated to protect against the three or four viruses that research suggests will be most common. At last check, more than 166 million doses of flu vaccine have already been distributed across the U.S., so there should be ample supply available.

Last season, we lost too many children to flu – CDC documented 185 children who lost their lives to flu – and estimates were that many more died, perhaps as many as 600. But even one child death is one too many.  We missed the opportunity to save their lives, and we must do better. I need your help to accomplish this. We know that flu vaccination can significantly reduce a child’s risk of dying from influenza. An estimated 80 percent of the reported flu deaths each season occur in children who have not been fully vaccinated against flu.

In addition, we know that even if someone gets sick after vaccination, the illness may be less severe. A 2017 study showed that flu vaccination reduced intensive care unit (ICU) admissions, ICU length of stay, and overall duration of hospitalization among hospitalized flu patients.

Recent CDC data suggests that flu vaccine coverage is on the rise after the severe flu season we had last year. However, we can’t get complacent; often each season more than half of U.S. adults are not protected against flu.

As healthcare providers, your recommendations are critical and they affect whether or not your patients get a flu vaccine. If you don’t offer the vaccine at your facility, I encourage you to make a referral, and follow-up with each patient during subsequent appointments to ensure they get vaccinated. You can also help lead by example. Last flu season, more than three-fourths of health care professionals protected themselves and their patients by getting a flu vaccine.  This is great, but we can do better here as well.

When in doubt, remember to SHARE:

  • Share the reasons why the flu vaccine is right for the patient
  • Highlight positive experiences with flu vaccines (personal or in practice) to reinforce the benefits and strengthen confidence in the vaccine
  • Address patient questions and concerns about the flu vaccine, including side effects, safety and effectiveness
  • Remind patients that flu vaccines protect them and their loved ones from serious illness and related complications
  • Explain the potential costs and consequences of getting flu

You can also remind your patients about the importance of simple, everyday steps to reduce the risk of flu, like washing their hands often, covering their mouth when they cough or sneeze, and staying home when sick. And for people who are very sick or hospitalized with flu – or who are at high-risk of serious complications, such as children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with heart or lung disease – CDC continues to recommend prompt treatment with antiviral medications. There are now four FDA-approved antiviral drugs to treat flu this season, and these could be the difference between a milder illness and a hospital stay or worse.

CDC strongly cautions against prescribing antibiotics for viral respiratory illnesses, such as colds and flu. As you know, too many patients continue to get prescriptions for antibiotics that are ineffective in treating viral infections, and can lead to antibiotic resistance in the evidence of a complicating secondary bacterial infection.

As a healthcare professional, you play a crucial role in protecting patients against influenza and its complications. Please help Americans stay healthy in the New Year, and ensure that you, your family, your colleagues, your office, and your patients all receive this year’s flu vaccine.

Robert R. Redfield is the Director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Administrator for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.