CDC asks health workers for flu vaccinations

Gerberding addresses myths, risk to patients

Julie Gerberding, MD, MPH, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has taken the unusual step of directly appealing to health care workers to get vaccinated for seasonal influenza.

"This year, don't get the flu, and don't spread the flu," Gerberding said in a letter to health care providers posted on a CDC flu web site. "Protect yourself, your loved ones, and your patients by getting a flu vaccine."

The appeal came as part of National Influenza Vaccination Week. With only 40% of heath care providers annually immunized for flu, Gerberding went so far as to call the historic apathy "unconscionable" at a recent press briefing at the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) in Bethesda, MD. She was more diplomatic in the appeal to health care workers, reminding them that they should be vaccinated for the following well-established reasons:

  • Health care workers are in contact with people at high risk from serious flu-related complications every day.
  • Low vaccination rates among health care workers have been associated with influenza outbreaks in hospitals and nursing homes.
  • You can get the flu and be asymptomatic or have mild symptoms, but still be contagious to others, which puts your patients at risk.
  • The safety of your patients may depend on your getting a flu vaccine this and every year.

Regarding the current vaccines, Gerberding noted that the "nasal spray" vaccine [live, attenuated influenza vaccine, (LAIV)] is an option for healthy children and adults aged 2-49 years old. LAIV can be used in health care workers, except for those in contact with severely immunosuppressed patients cared for in specialized patient-care areas, she noted. In addition, the injectable inactivated vaccine is safe and readily available for people aged six months and older, including pregnant women. Knowing that some persistent myths have undermined annual vaccination compliance by health care workers, Gerberding emphasized:

  • True adverse events from influenza vaccines are rare. The most common problems are pain at the injection site (with the shot), or stuffy nose, headache, or cough (from the nasal vaccine).
  • Neither type of vaccine can give you the flu.
  • Influenza vaccines prevent influenza illness in 70% to 90% of healthy adults younger than 65 years of age, when the vaccine and circulating viruses are well-matched.
  • Because it takes two weeks for the vaccine to provide protection, people who believe they contracted the flu after being vaccinated may have been exposed before they developed antibodies. Alternatively, they may have been exposed to another type of respiratory virus with similar "flu-like" symptoms.