Jan. 24, 2012— -- Flu season may be a few months old, but peak season is yet to come. And new research has found that a large number of people at risk may still be refusing to protect themselves.
Flu normally hits hardest in January or February, and infectious disease specialists say so far, this season has been very mild. But there are reports that nine people have died from swine flu this season in Mexico -- where the first swine flu outbreak began back in 2009, ultimately claiming 17,000 lives worldwide.
Despite knowing how potentially deadly swine flu could be, a new report has found that only 20 percent of adults in their late 30s said they got a flu shot during the 2009 outbreak.
In a survey, researchers from the University of Michigan asked approximately 3,000 adults between the ages of 36 and 39 -- members of the age group known as Generation X -- questions about how they responded to the 2009 swine flu pandemic, such as how they kept informed about the illness and whether they got flu shots to protect themselves or their family members.
The researchers have been following this same group of people for 25 years, and every year they survey them about their attitudes and behaviors related to different issues. Their work is known as the Longitudinal Study of American Youth (LSAY).
According to the latest results delving into attitudes about the flu vaccine, only 1 in 5 adults got a flu shot, but nearly 65 percent said they were moderately concerned about the swine flu, and about 60 percent said they kept informed about it.
"This was the first epidemic that was relevant to this age group," said Jon Miller, director of LSAY at the University of Michigan. "We were interested in how they used their prior science knowledge and prior education to make sense of this thing."
Adults in this age group, he explained, are very adept at gathering information from a variety of sources, including newspapers, magazines, online and from family, friends and colleagues.
While they managed to stay abreast of what was happening with the disease outbreak, the majority of them did not get flu shots. Though a larger number of the cohort with young children at home did get the flu shot to prevent the swine flu.
"If they had children at home, and about two-thirds of them did, it became more relevant to them to get a flu shot," he said.
Miller added the researchers did not ask the survey participants why they didn't get vaccinated, but he and other experts say a number of factors likely came into play. One reason is because supplies were limited for some time during that flu season.
"The vaccine came out a little late, so distribution was late," said Dr. Peter Katona, associate clinical professor of infectious diseases at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. "But in general, the vaccination rates for people in that age group are much lower. They are basically healthy and they don't think they're going to have a problem with the flu."
The swine flu hit certain age groups harder than the normal seasonal flu does, including adults in their 30s and 40s and college students," Katona added.
Despite their increased vulnerablity, adults in their late 30s may have been confused by changing public health messages about who should be vaccinated.
"Certain groups were given priority to get the vaccine first, but everybody should have been vaccinated," Katona said.
Many Adults Have "Feeling of Invincibility"
Another reason many late-thirtysomethings didn't get flu shots despite their knowledge of the risks posed by swine flu is that they often display a trait well-known in adolescents.
"Today, the feeling of invincibility can last well into the 20s or 30s," said Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills-based psychotherapist and author of "The Self-Aware Parent."
"A lot of people have not matured as quickly as we would hope and one of the issues that is prevalent in adolescents and many adults is a certain level of belief that they are omnipotent and more powerful than things out there."
Miller hopes the study's findings can shed some light on better ways to reach out to Generation Xers when it comes to preparing for future epidemics.
"I think we need to do a much better job getting everybody to understand about influenza and viruses," he said.