2015–16 influenza vaccine: Enough for all who want it

Immunization Update

More influenza vaccines are available this year than ever before, with at least 171 million doses produced and 40 million shipped. 

“There is enough for anyone who wants to get a flu vaccination,” said Tom Frieden, MD, MPH, director of CDC, at the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases’ (NFID) annual press conference, held September 17 in Washington, DC. (See page 22.)

Frieden was joined by William Schaffner, MD, medical director of NFID; Kathleen Neuzil, MD, MPH, director of the Center for Vaccine Development at the University of Maryland School of Medicine; and Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE, a pediatrician and executive director of digital health at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

Speakers emphasized national guidelines for influenza vaccines, discussed this year’s vaccine, and recapped last year’s influenza season. For the last 5 years, CDC has recommended the influenza vaccine for everyone aged 6 months and older.

Pharmacists: Convenient source

Frieden recognized pharmacists as convenient sources for influenza immunization and other vaccines. “Now in every state in the U.S., pharmacists can vaccinate against influenza, and in many states against other diseases as well,” Frieden told Pharmacy Today in response to a question. 

“The key about vaccination is making it easy for people. We’re seeing increasingly convenient vaccination options for Americans. Many Americans are getting vaccinated in their workplaces by doctors, nurses and pharmacists. We’re seeing more clinics in pharmacies providing vaccinations. These are all great options.” 

Pharmacists in particular can reduce barriers to getting the influenza vaccine in a way that other members of the immunization neighborhood may not, because of their hours and locations. 

“Community pharmacies are open long hours. They’re also open every day of the week. We are willing. We are ready. And we are able to administer both flu and pneumococcal vaccines,” said attendee Parmjit Agarwal, PharmD, MBA, APhA’s associate director of corporate alliances, following Frieden’s response. 

Pharmacists also set a great example for their colleagues and patients. They led health professionals with a 95% immunization rate for themselves last year, according to a recent CDC survey published in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Doctors and nurses followed closely behind at 89%. 

Better match for H3N2 strain

This year’s vaccine has been updated to better match the H3N2 strain, the predominant strain last year. The 2014 influenza vaccine was only 13% effective against this strain, also known as the “Switzerland variant.” 

The trivalent vaccine contains H3N2-like, H1N1-like, and B/Yamagata lineage-like strains. The quadrivalent vaccine contains a B/Victoria lineage-like strain as well. Again this year, people will have a couple of alternatives to conventional needles. Intradermal vaccines use shorter needles. Intranasal vaccines are also available. “It doesn’t matter which flu vaccine you get—just get one,” Frieden said. 

Last year’s influenza season was a particularly bad one. The hospitalization rate among seniors was the highest ever documented. An H3-predominant influenza season typically hits seniors harder than other strains, Frieden noted. 

Influenza vaccination rates

In the 2014–15 influenza season, 47% of the U.S. population got an influenza vaccine, a rate similar to the 2013–14 season. This is up from an estimated 41% 5 years ago. Rates were highest among the most vulnerable people: children younger than age 5 years and adults older than 65. Overall, adult influenza vaccination rates and those of pregnant women increased as well. But still only about one-half of pregnant women got the vaccine.

Influenza can hit pregnant women especially hard. Pharmacists can assure them that influenza vaccines are safe during pregnancy and offer protection to babies as well.

“We encourage all pregnant women to be vaccinated at any trimester. You’ll protect your [unborn] baby, and you’ll protect your newborn in the first 6 months of life, before that baby can get its own vaccination,” said Laura E. Riley, MD, speaking on behalf of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. 

While more health care workers got the influenza vaccine last year, there is room for improvement here as well. Immunization rates among long-term care facility staff lagged behind those of other health professionals last year at 64%. “If the people who work in nursing homes don’t get a flu vaccine, the people who are living in the nursing home are much more likely to get the flu and become severely ill,” Frieden said. 

The press conference culminated with panelists and attendees rolling up their sleeves to get the influenza vaccine. Frieden stepped up first. “Flu is unpredictable, but you can predict that the single best thing you can do to protect yourself is to get a flu vaccine,” he said. “Make getting a flu vaccine a norm for yourself and your family this year, and every year, just as I do.”