An eye-opening survey released in August found that doctors fail to offer flu vaccination, even though they are advised to do so. In the study of more than 3,400 American adults, doctors “missed opportunities” to encourage flu vaccination in 10 to 20 percent of cases. The number of missed opportunities was higher among Hispanics and blacks.

The study points to a challenging fact in U.S. health care: Annual flu vaccination rates fall far below recommendations. Only about 43% of Americans ages 6 months and older are vaccinated each year. Yet, about 50,000 people die annually from the flu or related diseases, such as pneumonia. And during particularly bad flu seasons–such as the 2009 epidemic of H1N1 influenza–the death and hospitalization rates can be much higher.

Flu vaccination is inexpensive (or free), safe for most individuals and is not hard to obtain. So what’s the problem? One issue is that doctors don’t offer the vaccination when they have the chance. Flu vaccination season begins around Oct. 1 and lasts into February or even later, depending on the harshness of the flu season. So, even if you’re seeing your doctor for an entirely different medical problem, such as a check-up on your sprained ankle, it’s a good idea to ask your health care provider for a flu shot while you’re in the office. Pregnant women can receive their flu shots during routine prenatal care visits.

“Improved office-based practices could significantly impact…goals to increase influenza vaccine uptake,” says the author of the new study, Jüergen Maurer of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland and the RAND Corporation in the United States. The study was published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

Some people prefer to be vaccinated in a doctor’s office, but that’s not necessary. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has endorsed flu vaccination programs in workplaces, pharmacies, health departments, urgent care clinics and schools. Insurance plans often cover the cost of a flu shot or require only a small co-payment. City and county health departments typically offer free flu shots to people who cannot afford them.

Flu vaccination is important. Not only do you protect yourself from illness, by becoming immunized you help protect your entire community. If the majority of people in a community are vaccinated, that “herd” immunity helps keep the virus from spreading and infecting people who aren’t eligible for vaccination, such as newborn babies.

Who should get a flu vaccine

Everyone 6 months and older should get a flu vaccine, but it’s especially important for some people to get vaccinated. They include:

  • People who are at high risk of developing serious complications (like pneumonia) if they get sick with the flu.
  • People who have certain medical conditions including asthma, diabetes, and chronic lung disease.
  • Pregnant women.
  • People younger than 5 years (and especially those younger than 2), and people 65 years and older.
  • People who live with or care for others who are at high risk of developing serious complications (see list above).
  • Household contacts and caregivers of people with certain medical conditions including asthma, diabetes and chronic lung disease.
  • Household contacts and caregivers of infants younger than 6 months old.
  • Health care personnel.

Who should not be vaccinated

Influenza vaccine is not approved for children younger than 6 months of age. People who have had a severe allergic reaction to influenza vaccine or any of its components should generally not be vaccinated.

There are some people who should not get a flu vaccine without first consulting a physician. These include:

  • People who have a moderate-to-severe illness with or without a fever (They should wait until they recover to get vaccinated).
  • People with a history of Guillain-Barré Syndrome that occurred after receiving influenza vaccine and who are not at risk for severe illness from flu. Tell your doctor if you ever had Guillain-Barré Syndrome. Your doctor will help you decide whether the vaccine is recommended for you.

Sources: Journal of General Internal Medicine – http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11606-014-2965 | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/keyfacts.htm

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