Flu Can Be Deadly for Older Adults. So Why Don’t We Do More to Protect Them?

January 16, 2018 1:00 PM

When you get a flu shot, it helps insulate those around you, including those at risk of dangerous flu complications. A new poll highlights the importance of the vaccine.

Flu hit America hard this month, leaving hundreds of thousands of miserable adults and children in its wake. New data show it’s reached epidemic status nationwide.

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But while most people will tough it out at home, tens of thousands of older and medically fragile people will be hospitalized — many with pneumonia from flu virus infecting their lungs.

And tens of thousands of them will die, the vast majority older than 65.

The flu shot’s benefits

If more people of all ages got flu shots, the annual death toll would probably be much lower. Since the flu shot doesn’t work as well in older and chronically ill people, they rely on vaccinated healthier people to form a buffer around them.

So you would think that people who work most closely with these vulnerable people in nursing homes, long-term care facilities and assisted living settings would get a flu shot.

But only about two-thirds do, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The percentage is a bit higher in settings that serve populations that are more medically fragile.

Hospitals and clinics, meanwhile, have ramped up staff vaccination in recent years, and about 90 percent of hospital staff get the flu vaccine or use masks to keep from spreading flu to others at work.

A recent poll from the University of Michigan’s National Poll on Healthy Aging shows that three-quarters of people ages 50 and older “definitely want nursing home staff to be required to get vaccinated against the flu.”

The vast majority of respondents also thought that nursing homes should offer the vaccine to staff at work for free and that they should require unvaccinated staff to stay home if they are sick.

In fact, poll respondents felt so strongly about flu vaccination that 70 percent said that if they found out that one-third of a nursing home’s staff wasn’t vaccinated, they would be less likely to choose it for themselves or loved ones.

The poll was conducted in a nationally representative sample of 2,007 Americans ages 50 to 80 by the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation. It was sponsored by AARP and Michigan Medicine, U-M’s academic medical center.

The CDC recommends that everyone ages 6 months and older be vaccinated against the flu every year, with few exceptions.

“We’ve finally gotten to the point in the past few years where most inpatient hospitals require their staff to get vaccinated against the flu, or at least strongly promote it,” says Preeti Malani, M.D., the director of the poll and a professor of internal medicine at the U-M Medical School who specializes in infectious diseases and geriatrics.

SEE ALSO: 3 Times You Risk Catching the Flu

“These results suggest that other types of care facilities should do the same to protect vulnerable patients — or potentially risk losing business,” she adds. “I encourage everyone to ask nursing homes and other long-term care facilities about their vaccination policies.”

A measure of protection

January isn’t too late to get a flu shot because the virus will keep circulating at high levels for one or two months to come, Malani says.

New CDC data suggest this year’s vaccine is 30 percent effective against the strains circulating in the U.S. That’s better than the 10 percent seen in Australia when it faced the flu several months ago.

Even if this year’s vaccine isn’t lined up perfectly with the flu strains that are going around, it still offers some protection for you and others. If you get the flu, it might mean you get a milder case and are less likely to pass it along to someone else.

When it comes to the health of the older and sicker people around you, as well as yourself, every bit of protection counts.