Experts Express Concern About Lower Rates of Flu, Pneumococcal Vaccination

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, announced new preferential flu vaccine recommendations for individuals aged 65 years and older.

Despite anticipating a stronger flu season in 2022 and 2023, new survey results from the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) show that just 49% of adults in the United States plan to get their flu vaccine this season. New data were released during the 2022 NFID influenza and pneumococcal news conference on Tuesday.

“Flu is not just a bad cold,” said NFID President Patricia Stinchfield, RN, MS, CPNP, during the briefing. “In fact, the words ‘just’ and ‘flu’ should never be in the same sentence.”

Throughout the briefing, all of the panelists emphasized the importance of vaccination efforts and said that clinicians should strongly urge all eligible patients to receive their flu vaccines. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, also announced new preferential recommendations for individuals aged 65 years and older, who should ideally receive 1 of 3 available higher dose, adjuvanted flu vaccines, which data have shown could be more effective in this population. However, she added that if these are unavailable, older adults should still receive any age-appropriate flu vaccine.

“While we will never exactly know what each flu season will hold, we do know that every year the best way you can protect yourself and those around you is to get your annual flu vaccine,” Walensky said. “So, I am here to strongly urge everyone who has not already been vaccinated to find the time and go get vaccinated.”

The past 2 flu seasons have been relatively mild thanks to heightened precautions implemented in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, data from the 2022 influenza season in Australia suggest that the upcoming season could be significantly stronger.

Walensky noted that during the 2021 and 2022 season, flu activity increased in November and continued until mid-June 2022, making it the latest flu season on record. Because of this, patients are urged to receive their vaccines by the end of October, although vaccines later in 2022 and in early 2023 are still effective.

In order to better understand public knowledge and attitudes about flu and pneumococcal diseases and vaccines, NFID commissioned a nationally representative survey with more than 1000 adult participants. Stinchfield announced the results during the briefing, emphasizing that fewer than half of adults in the United States plan to receive their flu vaccine this season. Furthermore, nearly 1 in 5 adults who are at high risk for severe influenza said that they are not planning to get vaccinated.

“That’s a dangerous risk to take,” Stinchfield said.

However, 69% of adults said that they recognize that the annual flu vaccine is the best prevention and the best tool against flu-related death and hospitalization. Among those who do not plan to get vaccinated, the most common reasons were that they do not believe the vaccines work, and concerns about adverse effects.

When looking at data about pneumococcal vaccines, the survey showed that only 29% of those at risk for pneumococcal illnesses have been advised to receive a vaccine. However, among those who did receive a recommendation, 74% got the vaccine. Stinchfield said this underlines the important role that clinicians play in educating and advising patients about vaccinations.

“As health professionals, our recommendations matter,” Stinchfield said. “We need to strongly recommend pneumococcal and flu vaccinations to our [patients].”

Some particular groups with lower vaccination rates include pregnant women and minority communities. Walensky noted that pregnant individuals saw the most dramatic decreases in vaccine coverage during the 2021-2022 influenza season. Approximately 50% of pregnant people got vaccinated, which was 5 points lower than the previous season.

Panelist Tamika Auguste, MD, added that reaching out to minority communities is essential. Black and Hispanic populations have a higher risk of flu complications and decreased vaccine utilization, which she attributed to unconscious bias, lack of health care access, and historic distrust in the medical professions. Intentionally reaching out to these communities is crucial to ensuring vaccine coverage.

“As health care professionals, we have to reach out, do more for those communities, meet them where they are, and have those extra conversations,” Auguste said.

REFERENCE

Auguste T, Schaffner W, Stinchfield P, Teichman J, Walensky R. 2022 NFID Influenza/Pneumococcal News Conference. October 4, 2022. Accessed October 4, 2022.