Fewer than 40 percent of healthy adults get flu shots even though more people were hospitalized during the last influenza season than at any time since the 2009 pandemic, the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases announced Thursday morning.
In all, 46 percent of the U.S. population 6 months old and older was vaccinated during the 2013-2014 season, up one percentage point from the year before. Rates were highest among children younger than 5 years old, at 70 percent, and among adults older than 65, at 65 percent.
The latest vaccination data were presented by Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as part of the government’s annual push to encourage flu shots. He and others got vaccinated at Thursday’s press conference in Washington, D.C.
Of the 107 children who died from the flu in 2013-2014, 47 percent had no previous health problems. Ninety percent had not been vaccinated.
“Full immunization could have prevented many of these deaths,” the foundation tweeted during the news conference.
The number of school-aged children who got flu shots rose 3 percent points to 55 percent. Rates for pregnant woman also went up, from often less than 15 percent before 2009 to about 50 percent over the last two years. Getting sick with the flu while pregnant doubles the risk of death of the fetus and increases the risk of premature labor, experts say.
But the vaccination rate for healthy adults ages 18 to 64 was only 34 percent, the foundation said.
Young adults as a group are healthy and get the mildest infections, said Dr. William Schaffner, a past president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
"They're the group the hardest to persuade," he said.
Emphasizing that they can spread the flu to others more likely to get sick is one way to convince them to get a flu shot, he said.
Schaffner also said disparities by race are the most striking among young and middle-aged adults.
"We have do better in reaching out to minority populations," he said.
South Dakota and Rhode Island led among states with vaccination rates at 57 percent. Nevada lagged at 36 percent.
The CDC also recommended a second vaccination against pneumococcal bacteria for adults older than 65. Pneumococcal disease, including a severe kind of pneumonia, meningitis, blood poisoning and other infections, can be a deadly complication of the flu.
Older adults should now receive two shots: one dose of pneumococcal conjugate vaccine then one dose of pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine, ideally six months to a year later, according to the new recommendation. Most adults need the vaccinations only once in their lifetimes.
In August, the CDC recommended nasal spray vaccine as the preferred method for children 2 to 8 years old, but it emphasized that a child’s vaccination should not be delayed if the nasal spray is unavailable.
More than 90 percent of doctors and nurses were vaccinated against the flu during the last season, but lower rates persist among those working in long-term care facilities, putting patients at risk, the foundation said.