Myths about the safety and effectiveness of influenza vaccines prevent many health care professionals from getting vaccinated.
More than 36% of health care professionals are not vaccinated against influenza, according to a new survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Vaccine coverage for pharmacists, physicians, nurses, and other health workers was 61.9% during the 2010-2011 flu season, falling short of the government’s Healthy People 2020 target of 90%.
Immunizing health care personnel is essential to protecting the general population against influenza, according to the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices and the Healthcare Infection Control Practices Advisory Committee. Although coverage for this population has risen slowly over the years, more must be done to encourage employee vaccination at hospitals, physicians’ offices, long-term care facilities, and other health centers, CDC said.
The report showed that more than half of unvaccinated health workers do not believe an annual flu shot is “worth the time and expense.” Nor do they view influenza as especially dangerous—just 34.2% said they believed influenza to be a serious threat to their own health, compared with 70.1% of vaccinated individuals. More than a third of unvaccinated health workers (nearly 34%) did not express confidence in the safety of the vaccine.
Coverage was highest among physicians and dentists (84%), followed by nurse practitioners and physicians’ assistants (83%), and nurses (70%). Among work settings, employees in hospitals were most likely to report being vaccinated (71%); retail pharmacies and long-term care facilities ranked second with a coverage rate of 64%. Rates were highest in facilities where vaccines were either compulsory or provided at no cost in convenient, on-site flu clinics lasting longer than 1 day.
When professionals are the patients
The report’s findings show that health workers, like most patients, are susceptible to common myths about influenza. In addition to providing convenient, accessible flu shots, education is critical to increasing immunity in this unique population, CDC said. “These results indicate that programs to educate [health care professionals] regarding the seriousness of influenza and the effectiveness of the vaccine in protecting [health care professionals] and their patients from illness should continue,” the researchers wrote.
As health care professionals themselves, pharmacists are in a unique position to advocate for influenza vaccination among their colleagues. According to the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP), “one of the primary barriers in immunization of health care workers is misconceptions about the influenza virus and vaccines. As a respected and trusted source of drug information, pharmacists can both educate and motivate health care workers to get vaccinated against influenza each year.”
Evidence shows that vaccinating health workers against influenza reduces infection and absenteeism among staff and lowers morbidity and mortality among patients. For these reasons, leading infectious disease organizations support mandatory vaccines for health professionals; however mandates are not the norm in most health facilities. Just 13% of respondents to the CDC survey reported receiving a vaccine to comply with an employer policy.
Unless such policies are broadly implemented, education and awareness will remain major drivers of vaccine decisions by health workers. In addition to being prepared with factual answers to common myths about influenza, pharmacists can send a powerful message by ensuring they themselves are vaccinated each year. Doing so demonstrates to patients and peers that an annual flu shot is a safe, effective way to prevent the spread of infectious disease.
In light of new data that shows the 2014-2015 flu season could be severe, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging immediate influenza vaccination for all unvaccinated individuals, as well as prompt antiviral drug treatment for those who develop flu and have a high risk of complications.