The Joint Commission Update for Infection Control

Oncologists should offer flu shots to cancer patients

Pts risk lives by snubbing flu, pneumonia vaccines

Despite a Joint Commission recommendation that cancer patients ages 50 years and older get seasonal flu shots, many are putting their lives at risk by not doing so. A recent study found although flu and pneumonia can be lethal for cancer patients, more than one-quarter of patients undergoing radiation therapy are not complying with national guidelines to be vaccinated against these potentially life-threatening yet preventable illnesses. The study was presented Oct. 28 at the American Society for Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology's 49th Annual Meeting in Los Angeles.

While both the Joint Commission and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines call for annual shots for cancer patients, 25% of patients 50 years or older reported never having received the flu vaccine. Similarly, the pneumococcus vaccine is recommended to all cancer patients 65 year or older; however, over one-third (36%) of cancer patients in that age range reported never having received the vaccine. Cancer patients are at a higher risk of acquiring and dying from these illnesses due to a weaker immune system, among other factors. According to the study, three reasons accounted for almost 80% of why patients didn't receive either vaccine: Patients either believed they didn't need the vaccines, they didn't know about the recommended vaccination guidelines or their physicians didn't recommend the vaccines. While 44% of patients who received either vaccine reported that they were asked or informed about these vaccines by their family physicians or internists, only 7% reported being asked or informed by their oncologists.

"People undergoing cancer treatment and their loved ones should ask their oncologists about these vaccines. They are a very simple, yet very effective, way for people living with cancer to extend their lives," says Neha Vapiwala, MD, study researcher and a radiation oncologist at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "Oncologists have the opportunity to talk to patients about recommended vaccines during their frequent interactions with patients, whether it is before, during, or after cancer therapy. This discussion could result in better cancer care and ultimately save lives."

This was the first study done to find out whether cancer patients receiving radiation therapy complied with national vaccination guidelines. The anonymous study asked 207 patients from August 2006 to January 2007 about whether they received the flu and pneumococcus vaccines. Those who reported receiving neither vaccine were asked further questions about the reasons they didn't receive them.