By Steven Reinberg
THURSDAY, Sept. 26 (HealthDay News) -- Although more Americans than ever are getting their annual flu shots, U.S. health officials said Thursday that the rates could be better and urged virtually all Americans to get vaccinated for the coming flu season.
"Our message today is simple. Everyone 6 months of age and older should receive a flu vaccination," Dr. Howard Koh, assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said during a morning news conference.
Those who remain unvaccinated are at higher risk of hospitalization and death from flu and its complications, the experts noted.
A flu shot is especially important for people with medical conditions such as heart disease, asthma or diabetes, Koh said. In addition, vaccinating pregnant women and health care professionals is vital.
Every year, an estimated 5 percent to 20 percent of Americans come down with the flu, leading to 200,000 hospitalizations -- including 20,000 children under the age of 5. From 1976 to 2006, estimates of flu-related annual deaths ranged from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000, according to the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
"Flu is predictably unpredictable," Koh said. "When it comes to flu, we can't look to the past to predict the future."
For example, "last year influenza started earlier than usual, was more intense and remained elevated for 15 consecutive weeks. Last season, we tragically witnessed some 164 pediatric deaths. That's the highest number [ever] reported except for the 2009-2010 pandemic year," Koh said.
Data on flu vaccinations in the United States was published Sept. 27 in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
"I have some good news," said Dr. Anne Schuchat, an assistant surgeon general in the U.S. Public Health Service and director of CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
"Last season, more people were vaccinated against influenza in the United States than in previous seasons," she said.
According to the report, during the 2012-2013 season 56.6 percent of children aged 6 months through 17 years got their shot, up 5.1 percent from the 2011-2012 season.
Among adults aged 18 and older, 41.5 percent were vaccinated, up 2.7 percent from 2011-2012. In all, 45 percent of the U.S. population aged 6 months and older was vaccinated during last flu season, the researchers found.
However, 72 percent of health care workers got a flu shot last season, a record high, according to the CDC.
Vaccination rates varied widely among the states, from a high of 57.5 percent in Massachusetts to a low of 34.1 percent in Florida. And while more pregnant women are getting vaccinated than before, their numbers appear stuck at around 50 percent, according to the CDC.
Vaccination rates were highest among those aged 65 and older (66 percent) and among children aged 6 months to 4 years (70 percent).
Racial disparities, however, still persist. Although vaccination rates are rising and more children of all races are getting their shot, it's a different story among adults.
Among adult blacks, 36 percent are getting vaccinated and among Hispanics, 34 percent are, which is far below whites, at 45 percent.
This flu season, about 135 million doses of the vaccine will be available, Schuchat said, "and they have already distributed 73 million doses."
"You need to get vaccinated before you are exposed to influenza for the vaccine to work," Schuchat said. "Remember that vaccination is the best way to protect yourself against the flu. It protects you and those you care about -- your loved ones, those you're around."
In addition to the standard shot, there is a high-dose shot for those aged 65 and older and one made in cell-culture, a new technique for flu vaccine that has been used for a long time for other vaccines, she said.
There is also a shot using a much smaller needle for adults aged 18 through 64; an egg-free version for adults aged 18 through 49; and the nasal spray, for those aged 2 through 49, Schuchat said.
More importantly, for the first time some vaccines will protect against four flu strains, instead of the typical three, she added.
This year's vaccine will protect against three strains most likely to cause the flu -- two "A" variants and one "B" strain, according to the CDC.
All nasal spray vaccine and some types of injected vaccine will also include a second influenza "B" strain, the agency noted.