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The Flu Vaccine Works -- But Few Give It a Shot


WebMD Health News

May 8, 2000 -- While this year's influenza vaccine held its own against the flu, many high-risk individuals did not get their yearly flu shot. In response, the federal CDC in Atlanta is changing its recommendations.

In the May 5 issue of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, researchers from the Geneva, Switzerland-based World Health Organization report that few people between the ages of 50 and 64 got their flu shots this year -- even though many in this age group have chronic medical conditions that place them at high-risk for the flu, flu-related complications, hospitalization, and death.

"The old recommendations were for people age 65 and older and everyone less than 65 with chronic medical conditions," says Carolyn Buxton Bridges, MD, a medical epidemiologist at the influenza branch of the federal CDC in Atlanta. "A lot of people age 50 to 64 don't get the flu shot so we decided to lessen the age to 50 to capture more at-risk people," she tells WebMD.

"Now we urge all people age 50 and above to get it," adds Linda Ford, MD, an allergist in Omaha, Neb. and past president of the American Lung Association.

The flu vaccine is appropriate for "almost everybody," Ford tells WebMD. The CDC notes, however, that people allergic to eggs probably shouldn't get the flu vaccine, since egg products are used to make it.

Bridges adds that the CDC urges all people with summer travel plans to get their flu shot before they go, if they haven't already, she says.

Experts agree that much of the illness and death caused by the flu can be prevented with annual flu shot. While most people should get flu vaccines, they are specifically recommended for people who are at high risk for developing serious complications as a result of the flu. High-risk groups include all people aged 65 years or older, people of any age with diabetes or chronic diseases of the heart, lung, kidneys, or immune system.

Influenza is caused by viruses that infect the respiratory tract. Influenza viruses are divided into three types -- A, B, and C. This year's flu was primarily caused by the influenza A virus, according to the new report.

Each year, scientists work to develop a vaccine aimed at the virus strain that they anticipate will cause illness in that given year. In years when there is a good match, the flu vaccine is as much as 90% effective in preventing the flu in healthy adults, according to the CDC.

At least 20,000 Americans die from the flu and its complications each year; most of the victims are over 65, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In the U.S., the most-recent flu season began in mid-December 1999 and peaked between Dec. 25, 1999 and Jan. 15, 2000.

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