With the U.S. in the early stages of the flu season, experts at the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) say we can all do our part to expand vaccination.
“This is a gift-giving time of the year,” Dr. Carol Baker told Healthline. “Give you and your family the gift of not being sick by giving everyone the flu vaccine.”
Prevention Has Made Some Diseases 'Invisible'
Baker has been in medicine long enough to remember when children were hospitalized for and died from vaccine-preventable diseases, such measles.
Now the chair of the NFID’s Childhood Influenza Immunization Coalition and a professor of pediatrics, molecular virology, and microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine, she sees some of these diseases returning because people opt out of vaccines.
“The problem that parents face now is that we’ve made these horrible infectious diseases invisible because we’ve made them preventable,” she said.
While about 90 percent of children in the U.S. are properly vaccinated, it only takes a small cluster of unvaccinated kids carrying any infection—from measles to the flu—to put others at risk, especially those too young for vaccines. For the flu, that includes anyone under the age of six months, and for the MMR vaccine, that’s anyone younger than one year.
Last years’ flu season killed 169 children, making it the most deadly flu year on record.
“When something comes into the community, it spreads very rapidly,” Baker said. “Fortunately, there’s still time.”
Don’t Forget the Pneumococcal Vaccine
Pneumococcus is not only the most common bacterial cause of pneumonia, but it can also cause ear and sinus infections, meningitis, and blood infections. It causes more than 30,000 serious infections each year.
Dr. William Schaffner, immediate past-president of NFID and a professor of preventative medicine at Vanderbilt School of Medicine, says the fatality rates for pneumococcal infections are at nearly 20 percent, and many of those are preventable deaths.
“It’s important for everyone to know if they should get vaccinated,” he said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that all children over the age of two and adults with certain risk factors get the pneumococcal vaccine. Those risk factors include heart and lung diseases, diabetes, smoking, and having a compromised immune system.
Schaffner said that if vaccination rates for pneumococcal bacteria increased, the number of cases would drop significantly.
“It’s not an infection we can cut completely, but we can reduce them by a third,” he said. “If we can get people to start asking about the pneumococcal vaccine and get providers to get with the program, we can improve prevention in this country.”
Doctors Play Large Role in Social Immunity
According to CDC data released earlier this week, only 40 percent of U.S. adults report getting a flu shot this year.
“There have always been people against vaccines, there’s just more vaccines to be against now,” Baker said. “There is a lot of misinformation, but I’ll cut to the chase: the person who is most valuable, according to all the data out there, is the healthcare provider.”
Baker said doctors should explain the benefits and potential risks of vaccination to parents in non-medical, non-scientific language, but not talk down to them.
“If you just listen to what the concerns are, 95 percent of the people are going to be perfectly reasonable,” she said. “You can easily find out who won’t vaccinate their children within five minutes of talking to them.”