The American public needs to get vaccinated now — today — in order to protect themselves from seasonal influenza, and then get the H1N1 vaccine as soon as it becomes available in mid-October.
That was the urgent message Secretary of Health Kathleen Sebelius was hoping her colleagues and the media would take away from a press conference she held Thursday morning.
“H1N1 has been getting top line publicity and it’s important to know that seasonal flu takes a toll year in and year out,” Sebelius said. “But each year, 36,000 Americans die from the seasonal flu. This is a serious disease. When it comes to strains of the flu, getting vaccinated is the best defense.”
More than 110 million doses of vaccine against regular winter flu are expected this year, according to a new estimate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's not quite as much as last fall's record supply. But typically fewer than 100 million Americans seek flu vaccine, even though it's recommended for the vast majority of the population, including:
— Adults 50 and older;
— All children ages 6 months to 18 years;
— Pregnant women;
— People of any age with chronic health problems like asthma, heart disease or a weakened immune system;
— Health care workers;
— Caregivers of the high-risk, including babies younger than 6 months.
If you don't like shots, there's a nasal-spray version of the vaccine, called FluMist, available for people ages 2 to 49.
Typical influenza is most dangerous to people 65 and older — they account for 90 percent of the approximate 36,000 flu deaths in this country every year. But children are flu's prime spreaders, often taking it home to parents and grandparents — and between 80 and 100 U.S. children die from regular flu every year.
The 2009 H1N1 strain, isn't hitting older adults nearly as hard — but it's spreading rapidly among children and young adults, and deaths so far have been mostly among people in their 20s, 30s and 40s.
Sebelius said “it stuns” her that 60 percent of health care workers do not get the influenza vaccine each year — and that is one percentage that needs to be reversed — immediately.
She also noted that while two-thirds of Americans over the age of 65 are taking advantage of Medicare’s free flu vaccine, younger Americans “are not doing such a good job.”
“It’s a great way to stay healthy, just get the shot,” she said.
The reason the H1N1 vaccine could not be mixed into the seasonal flu vaccine is because its strain was not identified until April – two months after researchers began making the seasonal flu vaccine.
“Flu is the most unpredictable of all the infectious diseases,” said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We have to be ready to adapt, ready to prepare. This year we are in unchartered territory. The flu season never really ended, or it started early, whichever way you’d like to look it.”
Frieden said this flu season — the one that never really ended — could continue to last a very long time.
The good news is that there has been no genetic change in the H1N1 makeup to suggest it has become more deadly, as noted by lab tests conducted as recently as 10 to 14 days ago.
“But that could change,” Frieden said. “We monitor that on a daily basis.”
There are things you can do to reduce your risk of getting sick, Frieden said, in addition to getting your flu vaccine now.
1. Ask everyone – including your doctor and/or pharmacist – who comes into close contact with you – to get vaccinated against the flu. If they will not get the vaccine, ask them why not.
2. If you are sick with a fever, or other flu-like symptoms, stay home.
3. Wash your hands frequently.
4. If you cough or sneeze, cover your mouth.
5. If you do become sick with the flu, get treated immediately.
6. If you are a senior citizen, or have a chronic illness, get a pneumococcal vaccine as well.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.