Why Flu Vaccine Rates Lag

A majority of Americans have no intention of getting vaccinated, a survey finds.

ByABC News
September 11, 2008, 9:26 PM

Dec. 10, 2008— -- Less than one-third of Americans have been vaccinated against the flu so far this season, and more than half of Americans don't intend to get shots, according to a survey conducted by the Rand Corp. and released today by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

The report, sponsored by vaccine manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline, surveyed influenza vaccination rates of approximately 4,000 American adults and found that the main reason 54 percent of Americans don't get vaccinated is their belief that they do not need it. Another reason cited is their disbelief that the flu is serious enough to cause adverse effects, according to the survey.

Dr. William Schaffner, president elect of the National Foundation of Infectious Diseases, said motivating people to get a flu shot this year will depend on health care providers explaining the importance of the vaccine and recommending the flu shot to patients.

"People are not aware that even if they have a mild case [of the flu], they are the vehicle of transmission to others," said Schaffner.

While previous surveys have been conducted at the end of the October through February flu season, this is the first interim survey designed to measure vaccination use among U.S. adults. And, according to the CDC, the findings may be consistent with previous annual end-of-season reports.

Using the survey, the Rand Corp. predicted that no region in the United States would be on track to the necessary vaccination rates to prevent the flu this season.

"That is wimpy across the board," Schaffner said.

According to Dr. Litjen Tan, director of infectious diseases and immunology at the American Medical Association, 50 million to 60 million people are expected to get the flu this season. Influenza costs the government around $10 billion a year, he said.

"The consequence to not get immunized is a choice to suffer influenza and the public health and economic consequence of the disease, and infecting those you love," said Tan.

While, according to the survey, nearly 30 percent of people have already been immunized this flu season, some have found alternative and even additional ways to protect themselves from the virus, which kills an estimated 36,000 Americans every year.

Visit the ABCNews.com OnCall+ Cold & Flu Center

The following pages give 10 ways to stay flu-free.

"The vaccine is really important, and it's actually easier than ever because of the nasal, inhaled version of the vaccine," said Dr. Ken Haller, an associate professor of pediatrics at St. Louis University.

So between the inhaled FluMist and the needle-injected vaccine, you should be able to find a way to protect yourself this flu season.

For those without easy access to a sink, Haller recommends using an antibacterial hand gel, which he says is "just as good as hand washing."

"We'll tell people to keep one with you in your pocket or your purse or your car, when you're going from place to place."

Additionally, when sneezing or coughing, covering your nose and mouth with your elbow instead of your hand can help prevent spreading the flu to others -- as can washing your hands after blowing your nose.

Some of the germiest surfaces you come in contact with during the day will be in your office.

So keeping your work area clean may be one of the best ways to avoid picking up something that would keep you home from work.

The mucus is sent to the stomach, where the acids it produces destroy the invaders.

Because of that, keeping nasal passages moist is an important step.

"Humidifiers can be really helpful," said Haller.

Additionally, in dry air, particles like the flu virus can stay airborne longer. By moistening the air, the water droplets will adhere to the particles, sending them downward.

A study done at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine last year showed that, in gerbils at least, relative humidity and temperature had a lot to do with how much the influenza virus spread.

Haller recommends using a saline solution as well to keep the nasal passages moist. (For a video demonstration of how to do this, click here.)

"Since it's just saltwater ? you can do it every couple of hours if you need to," said Haller.

Even ensuring that you're drinking enough water, Haller said, can help keep the body moist enough to protect against the flu.

The increased circulation from exercise gets white blood cells moving around the body to help fight off infections.

But exercise may not do much once you have the flu. While people who feel up to it can exercise, as Dr. Lisa Bernstein, an assistant professor of medicine at Emory, explains, most are too tired to exercise when they have the flu.

"Get plenty of rest, so if you do get sick, you can get over [the flu] more quickly," said Fryhofer.

But because that won't always be an option, she advises simply being mindful when you do shake hands that you clean them -- either by washing or with a gel -- shortly afterward.

As many studies have shown, not everyone is going to go through the same effort to keep their hands clean, but while it may mean some extra caution on your part, there's probably little you can do about that.

"The main thing is just making sure your own hands are clean," said Haller.

"Generally, at some point, our hand goes to our nose, whether we like it or not, and that can transmit flu viruses from one person to another," said Haller.

Keeping your hands clean is one way to prevent the problem, but keeping them from your face may just be a matter of willpower.

While this advice may not help much if your food is being handled by someone with the flu, it can be helpful in many of the social situations in which finger food would be served.

If you're shaking hands with many people at a reception, you may not have the time or opportunity to wash up before digging into dinner.

Using utensils can keep any viruses on your hands from traveling to your mouth.

Cigarette smoke can affect the membranes of the nose, inflaming them. Ultimately, this makes the nose more susceptible to infection.

And this doesn't just affect smokers but the people around them too.

"If you can't quit, at least go outside when you smoke," said Haller.

That way, the risk to others can be reduced.

Cold and flu season is here! Visit the ABCNews.com OnCall+ Cold & Flu Center to get all your questions answered about these nasty viruses.