Far too few Americans get their flu shots each winter, the government is warning as it calls for a record number to line up for inoculations this year — including 30 million more school-age children.
This year promises an ample vaccine supply: 143 million to 146 million doses, more than ever before manufactured.
"It's a fact that the influenza vaccine saves lives," said Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Add up everyone the CDC recommends get vaccinated, and 261 million Americans qualify. Yet last year, just 113 million of the 140 million doses produced were used.
And new CDC data released Wednesday show just a fraction of those at highest risk from influenza's seasonal march across the country get protected. Flu kills about 36,000 Americans a year and leads to about 200,000 hospitalizations.
Just 72 percent of people 65 and older were vaccinated in the 2006-07 flu season, the latest data available — even though Medicare pays for their doses. That's well short of the government's goal to be vaccinating 90 percent of this age group by 2010.
Roughly one in five children under 2 got vaccinated that winter.
Anyone who has a chronic illness such as asthma or heart disease, or a weak immune system, is in special need of vaccination as well. But the new data shows just over a third of young adults with those conditions, and half of 50- to 64-year-olds, comply.
A closer look shows where people live greatly influences their flu protection. Young adults are least likely to get vaccinated in Florida, while Rhode Island does the best job at vaccinating seniors. As for babies and toddlers, fewer than one in 10 in Mississippi are getting fully vaccinated compared with nearly half in Rhode Island.
In addition to those people, the CDC this year for the first time is recommending that virtually every child age 6 months to 18 years be vaccinated, unless they have a serious egg allergy.
Why the change? Although children under 5 are more likely to be hospitalized, healthy school-age children have higher rates of flu than other age groups. Plus, research increasingly shows that youngsters are key spreaders of influenza to the rest of us.
Also on CDC's get-vaccinated list: anyone 50 or older, women who will be pregnant during flu season, health care workers, caregivers and relatives of the high-risk.
Choices include standard flu shots, for all ages, and the nasal vaccine FluMist, which can be used in healthy people age 2 to 49.
An increasing variety of places are offering vaccination beyond the usual doctors' offices, health departments and grocery stores. With CDC's encouragement, more schools are scheduling flu-vaccination days, some with free vaccine.
And a Robert Wood Johnson-funded program called Vote & Vax will offer vaccine at numerous polling places on Election Day.
Voting isn't required, and the vaccine provider is supposed to charge the same price it would any other day, at any other location. The idea: The convenience of avoiding an extra stop might encourage more people to get vaccinated.
It's not clear how many polling places will participate. But during a pilot project on Election Day 2006, some 13,790 doses were administered at 127 polling places in 14 states — and nearly 30 percent of the recipients said they hadn't gotten vaccinated the previous year.