The yearly influenza vaccine is one of the most important regular immunizations for Airmen and their families. This year will be different because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended not using the live attenuated influenza vaccine commonly known as FluMist. All the military services will follow their recommendation.
This is because an independent panel of experts, known as the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, has found over the past few seasons FluMist has become less effective than other forms of the vaccine.
Col. John Oh, Chief of Preventive Medicine for the Air Force Medical Support Agency, said, “People should be reassured that this is exactly how the system is setup to work. We are testing the effectiveness of the vaccination annually, and we're taking the appropriate policies to make sure our Airmen are going to be protected.”
The absence of FluMist doesn’t change anything else going into the immunization season. It’s still really important for everyone to get vaccinated. This includes age groups from children as young as six months to adults 65 years and older. According to the CDC, more than 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu-related complications, and as many as 171 children die from the flu every year.
“The flu virus has to be respected. We just really can't underestimate its potential to cause harm,” said Maj. Ryan Gottfredson, a pediatrician and Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences Preventive Medicine resident. “I think flu becomes commonplace because it recurs every year. So it's easy for people to get lulled into a sense of normalcy and not recognize this as a threat to their health and to their families’ health.”
He said there are certain groups of people that really need to get the vaccine: children less than six years old, adults over 65 years old, pregnant women, anyone with certain chronic medical conditions like asthma, and people with weakened immune systems, among others. The CDC tracks the rates of vaccinations among high risk groups.
Unfortunately, those who need it the most often don’t get vaccinated. Pregnant women, for example, only get vaccinated about 50 percent of the time, and only 30-50 percent of children get the vaccine. Nationally, only 43 percent of all people get it.
“This is a safe and effective vaccine,” said Gottfredson. “Recent studies have shown that the flu vaccine in children can decrease their risk of being admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit by 74 percent, and there’s about a 71 percent reduction in flu-related hospitalizations overall.”
He added there is a 92 percent decrease in hospitalizations of newborns with the flu whose mothers were vaccinated during pregnancy.
Oh said, “It's pretty clear the influenza vaccination has a lot of really good benefits. We encourage everyone to get it.”
There are a lot of ways for Airmen to get the influenza vaccine as it becomes available. Airmen can contact their local military treatment facilities to see if the vaccine is in stock, several clinics and bases do large immunization days where Airmen and their families can show up and get the vaccine quick and easy, and Airmen can also get the shot from retail pharmacies as long as they’re a TRICARE participating provider.
The flu vaccine is a great example of preventive health. The AFMS cares for its family members and wants all Airmen to take charge of their health.