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Experts say people with serious illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease can have more serious symptoms if they get the flu. Getty Images
  • Three health organizations are teaming up to get the word out that people with serious conditions such as heart disease and diabetes need to get a flu shot.
  • Experts say people with chronic illnesses can experience more serious complications from influenza.
  • Experts say people can get flu shots at their doctor’s office as well as at pharmacies and walk-in clinics.

Getting vaccinated against the flu can save the lives of people with chronic conditions such as heart disease.

So why are immunization rates for this group still so low?

In a new study, researchers reported that almost 1 in 3 people with heart disease who participated in the national Medical Expenditure Panel Survey between 2008 and 2015 didn’t receive a vaccination against the flu in the prior year.

For low-income and uninsured patients, the rates of non-vaccination are even lower. About 65 percent of these individuals weren’t vaccinated.

The research will be presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2019 later this week in Philadelphia.

It hasn’t been published yet in a peer-reviewed journal.

As part of the research, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, and the American Diabetes Association are working together for the first time to raise awareness about the importance of flu shots for people with chronic diseases.

The past few flu seasons have been particularly deadly.

“We are seeing a significant number of individuals dying as a result of influenza, and the majority are people over the age of 65,” Dr. Albert Rizzo, FACP, chief medical officer for the American Lung Association, told Healthline.

“Whether it is heart disease, lung disease, diabetes — those are the big three — we know those individuals, especially those older individuals, have a higher risk of getting influenza and developing complications that can impact the quality of life, hospitalization rates, and may increase mortality,” said Rizzo.

“Make no mistake, complications from influenza can be lethal,” states the American Heart Association in a press release. “By championing vaccination, we are working together to save lives and preserve quality of life and independence for the millions of Americans with chronic disease.”

For people with cardiovascular disease, the American Heart Association says the flu vaccine can reduce one’s risk of hospitalization and other major health events, such as heart attacks or strokes, and death.

This is why medical experts have been making the vaccination recommendation for a number of years now.

“Influenza can be a very serious illness for people who have chronic diseases,” said Lynne T. Braun, PhD, CNP, FAHA, FAANP, FPCNA, FAAN, professor of nursing and medicine at Rush University in Chicago as well as a nurse practitioner at the Rush Heart Center for Women.

“It can weaken the body to the point where they may not recover. This is particularly true in older adults,” Braun told Healthline.

Dr. Eduardo Sanchez, MPH, FAAFP, chief medical officer for prevention at the American Heart Association, told Healthline that, “In persons who had heart attacks and strokes, there’s a list of things that we know are must-dos to prevent either a second heart attack or stroke or some other severe complication because of the flu.”

Sanchez lists the following steps for people with heart disease to ensure good health:

  • Take aspirin.
  • Take any other medications as prescribed.
  • Get an annual flu vaccination.

“The likelihood of something really serious happening if you’ve already had a stroke or a heart attack is really, really high,” said Sanchez.

Sanchez adds that all adults and children who can get the flu shot should get immunized every year, but it’s particularly important for those with serious health issues.

“For our patients who have chronic diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes, or emphysema, it is critically important to get that flu vaccine because the consequence of the flu with complications is far, far greater for those with chronic diseases,” he said.

Tracey D. Brown, the chief executive officer of the American Diabetes Association, agrees.

“As someone living with diabetes, I know firsthand how important it is that all people living with a chronic health condition get a flu vaccination,” Brown told Healthline. “I get mine every year to avoid getting the flu and all of the complications that can come with it.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the annual flu vaccination can reduce the risk of hospitalization by 37 percent and reduce the risk of admission to the intensive care unit by 82 percent.

“November is American Diabetes Month, and we are urging everyone to know their numbers and take steps to improve their health,” said Brown. “It’s one small step people can take to improve their health, and we’re excited to work closely with our friends at the American Heart Association and the American Lung Association to spread this message far and wide.”

Sanchez notes that 30 percent of people aren’t vaccinated. Among the uninsured, it’s double that rate.

“The study reminds us of what happens when you compare populations of people with insurance to people without insurance,” he said.

However, Braun doesn’t see insurance as a barrier to the flu shot.

“Walgreens and CVS, the two predominant pharmacies, advertise free flu shots, so I don’t think insurance is a barrier,” she said.

Instead, she points to preset ideas and a lack of awareness.

“Lack of education in respect to understanding the importance of the flu shot,” Braun said. “I know this from my own clinical practice. There are individuals who oppose the flu vaccine and many other vaccines.”

The problem is, says Braun, that some people still believe they’ll get the flu from getting the flu vaccine.

“Many years ago, they may have had the vaccine and felt ill and that’s that. They won’t entertain the notion again. We struggle with that all the time,” she said.

Helping people unlearn potentially lethal misconceptions about the flu shot begins in the primary care office.

“Patients who I see on a regular basis, many of them know to get their flu shot on an annual basis, but it has to be taught to them by the care team monitoring their chronic illness,” said Rizzo. “Pharmaceutical drug stores offer it and that helps, but then it falls back on the awareness of the individual.”

Having influenza can also be life threatening for people with chronic illnesses, especially older adults.

Getting vaccinated can provide your community with the protective benefits of herd immunity.

“It’s not only about ourselves,” said Braun. “It’s about the people we come into contact with in any setting where people congregate.”

Braun has simple advice on how people can help stop the flu from spreading:

  • Get vaccinated.
  • Practice proper handwashing and hygiene techniques.

“We touch other parts of our faces with our hands. Germs have been shown to reside on them, and they can be passed from one person’s hand to the next,” Braun said.

She adds that we should consider this when in public places.

“Then there are the droplets when other people are coughing,” Braun said.

It can be difficult to avoid coming into contact with the flu this season. This is why prevention is key, especially for people with a chronic condition such as heart disease.

“Influenza can be prevented only by getting an influenza vaccine. Not getting vaccinated is not going to protect you from influenza. If you get it, you may have an even worse outcome if you have cardiovascular disease. So what’s the solution there? Get vaccinated,” said Sanchez.

Here are some places you can get a flu shot:

  • local pharmacy or grocery store
  • walk-in clinic
  • primary care physician