45% of Americans got a flu shot last year; CDC says we can do better

45% of Americans got a flu shot last year; CDC says we can do better
Setting a good example, Dr. Howard K. Koh, assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, follows the CDC's advice and gets a flu shot on Thursday. (National Foundation for Infectious Diseases / PR News Foto)

More than half of all kids in the United States were vaccinated against influenza during the 2012-13 flu season, along with more than four in 10 adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overall, 45% of Americans over the age of 6 months got some sort of flu vaccine.

"Last season, more people were vaccinated against influenza in the United States than in previous seasons," Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC, told a gathering sponsored by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.


But Americans can do better, she said, and vaccine makers are offering more options for the coming year than ever before.

Schuchat reported that 57% of children got a flu shot or flu mist in 2012-13, with coverage ranging from a low of 44% to a high of 82% in individual states. Among adults, 42% got some type of vaccine, with state-specific coverage ranging from 31% to 53%. South Dakota had the highest rate of vaccination among adults, and Rhode Island led the way for children, Schuchat said. (The laggards weren't called out by name.)

Vaccination rates were up for all age groups last flu season, compared with the previous season. The biggest gains were seen in teens (they improved from 33.7% to 42.5%), followed by children 5 to 12 (they improved from 54.2% to 58.6%).

The age group most likely to get the flu vaccine was infants and toddlers between the ages of 6 months and 2 years, with 76.9% of them being vaccinated in 2012-13. Coming in second were adults 65 and older, with a 66.2% vaccination rate.

At the other end of the spectrum, only 31.1% of adults in their prime — ages 18 to 49 — got a flu shot or flu mist during the last flu season. Still, that represents an improvement over the 28.6% vaccination rate for the 2011-12 season.

Women were more likely than men to be vaccinated, by a margin of 45% to 38%. One subset of women that Schuchat was particularly pleased about was pregnant women — 51% of them got a flu shot or flu mist last season.

The 2009 outbreak of H1N1 "swine flu" hit pregnant women particularly hard, and they — and their doctors — seem to have responded by emphasizing the need for these women to be immunized. "It was a wake-up call to all of us," Schuchat said.

When clinicians recommended the vaccine and offered it in their practice, 71% of pregnant women got it; when doctors neither recommended nor offered it, only 16% of pregnant women got vaccinated, she said.

Healthcare workers also did a better job of getting themselves vaccinated during the last flu season, the CDC figures show. Doctors led the way with a 92% vaccination rate, followed by pharmacists, nurse practitioners and physician assistants at 89%.

Overall, 83% of people who worked in hospitals got a flu shot or the flu mist in 2012-13; however, only 59% of staffers in long-term care facilities did so. Schuchat flagged that as a particularly troubling statistic, because these are places "where the evidence on the value of vaccinating caregivers is strongest and the population is the weakest," she said.

Among adults, 45% of Asian Americans, 45% of whites and 41% of Native Americans got vaccinated during the last flu season, compared with 36% of African Americans and 34% of Latinos. "We do continue to see unfortunate disparities in adult influenza vaccinations, Schuchat said. "In children, we don't see those patterns." In fact, the vaccination rates for Asian American children (66%), Latino children (61%), black children (57%) and multiracial children (59%) were all higher than for whites (54%).

If all of this is persuading you to get a flu shot this year, Schuchat has a message for you:

"The vaccine is out there, and now's the time to get it," she said. "You need to get vaccinated before you're exposed to influenza for it to work. The first cough or fever is not the time to start thinking about it."

About 73 million doses of influenza vaccine have already been shipped by manufacturers, who expect to produce at least 135 million doses for the 2013-14 flu season, she said. Among them are some new choices, including a flu mist that covers four strains of influenza virus instead of the usual three. There's also a flu shot that is injected only into the skin instead of going all the way into a muscle; as a result, the needle is 90% smaller than the one used for regular shots.


Which option is best? The one you get, Schuchat said.

"The CDC does not recommend one vaccine over another, or one type of vaccine over another," she said. "The most important thing is to be vaccinated."