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Stagnant flu vaccine rates worry U.S. health officials

Ben Schmitt
| Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017, 12:21 p.m.
Flu season typically runs from early October through May, reports the Centers for Disease Control, which recommends people 6 months and older get annual flu vaccines.
Flu season typically runs from early October through May, reports the Centers for Disease Control, which recommends people 6 months and older get annual flu vaccines.

If you skipped the flu shot last season, you may want to reconsider.

Federal health officials warned Thursday of a potentially miserable flu season and urged people to roll up their sleeves before the unpredictable virus kicks into gear.

Vaccination rates were stagnant last season, officials said. About 46.8 percent of Americans received flu vaccines last season, up about 1.2 percent from the previous one, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

That left more than half of Americans unprotected, the agency noted.

"We have got a lot of room for improvement," U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price said Thursday during a news conference in Washington D.C.

He followed his remarks by rolling up his sleeve and getting a flu shot.

Price avoided talking about recent comments from President Trump, who expressed displeasure with him. Price also did not mention the controversy over his costly charter flights , and he left before a question-and-answer session with the media. He said he still believed he had Trump's confidence as he departed.

Price's travels were first reported last week by Politico, which said it had identified 26 charter flights at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Cheaper commercial flights were a viable option in many cases.

On flu-related matters, officials said children between 6 months and 23 months old had to top rate of vaccinations during the past season to receive vaccinations: 76.3 percent. That exceeded the CDC's goal of 70 percent for all ages.

Flu-related hospitalizations for kids under 5 range from 7,000 to 26,000 annually, depending on the severity of the flu season.

Additionally, vaccine rates for adults between ages 50 to 64 increased by 1.8 percent from the previous season, and rates increased by 1.9 percent for adults over 65 to 65.3 percent.

"We are pleased to see that the decrease in vaccination coverage among adults age 50 years and older that we saw in the 2015-2016 season was not sustained during the 2016-2017 season," said Dr.

Kathleen Neuzil, director of the Center for Vaccine Development. "It is critical to maintain the highest level of vaccination coverage for older adults because they are disproportionately affected by flu."

Those 65 and older accounted for 85 percent of flu-related deaths and the majority of hospitalizations, she said.

Last season, the flu infected 5,001 people in Allegheny County and 1,640 in Westmoreland County, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

The flu kills more than 30,000 people a year on average, according to the CDC. Flu activity usually begins in October, peaking between December and March.

For the upcoming flu season, the CDC again recommended only injectable flu vaccines and not nasal sprays.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991, or via Twitter at @Bencschmitt.

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