Survey Finds Many US Adults Were Not Prepared for Severity of Current Flu Season

The current flu hospitalization rate is the highest observed this early in a flu season in over a decade.

A new American Heart Association (AHA) survey suggests that many US adults are not as concerned about the flu season as they should be, with flu-related hospitalizations growing to record-high early season levels.

The CDC estimates that the current flu season has caused at least 6.2 million illnesses, 53,000 hospitalizations, and 2900 flu-related deaths. The current hospitalization rate is the highest observed this early in a flu season since 2010-2011, according to the CDC.

“The flu is back and it’s already proving to be dangerous this year, especially for children and seniors,” AHA Chief Medical Officer for Prevention Eduardo Sanchez, MD, MPH, FAHA, said in a press release. “If you haven’t had your flu vaccine this season, it’s time to get a flu shot. Getting a flu shot today will help protect yourself and your family from preventable and potentially devastating and expensive complications.”

The survey, conducted by The Harris Poll in July, included 4047 individuals 18 years of age and older. The results showed that 54% of US adults were not very or not at all concerned about the flu season at the time the survey was conducted.

The AHA noted that the risk for serious complications from the flu is greater among those with cardiovascular disease, adding that approximately half of adults hospitalized with the flu also had heart disease. Despite a significant body of research showing that an annual flu shot helps prevent or reduce the severity of flu symptoms, CDC data show approximately half of the eligible US population obtained the vaccine last year.

Among the top identified reasons for not getting the flu vaccine were not thinking it is needed (30%), lack of concern for getting the flu (28%), and worries regarding adverse effects (AEs [17%]). However, a study released at the AHA’s recent Scientific Sessions indicates mild vaccine-related AEs, such as injection site pain, may indicate a robust immune response and better overall health, according to the study.

“In this case, it’s important to look at the big picture. Those mild and temporary side effects you may have from the flu shot are tolerable compared to how bad you’ll feel and what could happen if you get the flu,” Sanchez said in the release.

In the study, individuals with high-risk heart disease experiencing mild to moderate AEs were found less likely to be hospitalized for heart or lung problems, or to die from any cause.

“This is important because people with serious heart disease carry an increased risk of hospitalization or death from the flu. This adds more evidence to the decades of proof we already have that the flu shot works,” Sanchez said.

Further, having received a flu shot the year prior does not provide protection in the current season.

“There are numerous strains of influenza,” Sanchez said. “Even if you’ve had the flu or the flu shot before, you still need the flu shot formulated for each season. And of course, the more flu activity there is, the higher your chances of getting it.”

Flu season has the greatest impact on seniors, with up to 85% of annual seasonal flu-related deaths and up to 70% of seasonal flu-related hospitalizations in recent years occurring in those 65 years of age and older. Subsequently, a high-dose flu vaccine is recommended for those 65 years of age and older; however, 33% of US adults in this age group who were surveyed had not heard of high-dose flu vaccines.

“If you’re 65 or older, ask about the flu vaccines recommended for your age and get the best one that’s available at that location at that time,” Sanchez said in the release.

The survey also highlighted inequity across various racial and ethnic groups. Historic flu hospitalization rates were found to be nearly 80% higher among Black adults compared with white adults from 2009–2022, 30% higher among American Indian/Alaska Native adults, and 20% higher among Hispanic adults. Fewer than 43% of Black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaska Native adults were found to be vaccinated during the 2021-22 flu season vs 54% of white adults, according to the survey.

“The flu shot is one of the easiest, cheapest and most effective prevention measures I can think of to stay healthy and avoid a serious illness or death,” Sanchez said.

Reference

Poll: High flu activity may catch some Americans dangerously off-guard. American Heart Association. News release. Accessed December 6, 2022. https://newsroom.heart.org/news/poll-high-flu-activity-may-catch-some-americans-dangerously-off-guard

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