Preventing the Flu This Season Will Have to Start With a Shot

A preferred preventative option for needle-shy adults and children has fallen from favor this flu season, and health officials are worried that many may now skip vaccine-based prevention altogether.

In early summer of this year, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) adopted a committee’s recommendation that people should not combat influenza during the 2016-2017 season with the nasal-spray version of the vaccine. A CDC review found that the spray, sold as FluMist, had reportedly provided low effectiveness in the past few years, specifically against the influenza A virus (H1N1), and could not support its use for the forthcoming flu season.

The concern now as the flu season kicks in is that those who have chosen the nasal-spray vaccine in the past will forego the influenza vaccine shot. This worry is especially pronounced for kids, as the spray had accounted for as much as a third of all flu vaccinations given to children in recent years, and up to 55 percent of all doses given through school-based programs. Flu vaccination rates for children ages 6 months to 17 years old has been increasing steadily for years, growing from 43.7 percent in 2009-10 season to 59.3 percent in the 2014-15 season, according to CDC statistics.

These are hard-won and very important gains in prevention for not just our children, but relatives and neighbors of all ages, that we do not want to see take a step back. The stakes are significant as influenza causes on average an estimated 200,000 hospitalizations and contributes to from 3,000 to 49,000 deaths each year.

“I am concerned that families will opt not to get any influenza vaccine this year,” said Dr. Henry Bernstein, a pediatrician and professor at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine, in New York state, in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal. “It puts those specific children at risk, as well as their family members and the community at large.”

There are tactics that can help as parents and clinicians approach this season knowing that their children and patients are now facing shots that may frighten them greatly. As we wrote about recently, vaccine pain-management techniques include simple distraction with a favorite toy, reminders of rewards after the shots, use of a topical anesthetic and cradling a child at time of vaccination.

Health officials recommend getting a flu shot by the end of October, but advise that being vaccinated at any point in the flu season is helpful in lowering risk of catching and spreading the virus. The flu season in the United States starts in early October and runs through May. For the 2016-2017 season, the flu vaccine supply, a projected 170 million doses, is expected to be sufficient for coverage of all who request the vaccine, including the average of 8 percent who use the nasal spray each year.

With the nasal spray not a recommended option for this season, clinicians and their patients face a further challenge in combating the flu this season. Together, we know we can meet this challenge and that the flu shot’s fleeting moment of discomfort will be far outweighed by the lasting protection it provides for our families and our communities.