Sept. 28 (UPI) -- The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services this morning announced its guidelines for this year's flu season, with focus this year placed on increasing the number of people vaccinated after statistics suggest little increase in those opting for the vaccine.
Influenza seasons can be hard to predict varying from mild to severe depending on the season and the predominant strain of influenza for that season.
"Vaccines are only as useful as when we take advantage of them," Dr. Tom Price, secretary of health and human services, said in a press conference today at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. "We encourage everyone six months and older to get vaccinated every year. Influenza can be a lot worse than a few days away from school or work. Older adults, pregnant women, young children and those with certain medical conditions are most at risk."
Price, who received his flu shot at the press conference, said the vaccine can prevent serious health challenges including hospitalization.
"It's really very easy," Price said. "The vaccine is available in many places, so there's no reason to not get vaccinated. Again, the stakes are very serious. Thousands if not tens of thousands of deaths could be prevented by increasing the vaccination rate."
A just-released Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report estimate from the 2016-2017 influenza season showed mostly stagnant vaccination rates among all age groups, with small increases in those 50 and older.
Flu vaccination coverage throughout the entire United States was 46.8 percent, which is an increase of 1.2 percent from the 2015-2016 season, the CDC reports.
In the 2015-2016 flu season, there were decreases in vaccination coverage among adults age 50 to 64 and 65 and older, however, rates recovered in the 2016-2017 season. Vaccination rates increased by 1.8 percentage points to 45.4 percent in the 50 to 64 age group and by 1.9 percentage points to 65.3 percent in the 65 and older age group.
"We are pleased to see that the decrease in vaccination coverage among adults age 50 and older we saw in the 2015-2016 season was not sustained during the 2016-2017 season," said Dr. Kathleen Neuzil, director of the Center for Vaccine Development at the University of Maryland. "It is critical to maintain the highest level of vaccination coverage for older adults because they are disproportionally affected by flu."
"Vaccination not only reduces the chance that older adults will get the flu, it can also help keep them out of the hospital by reducing the severity of the infection and related complications if they do get the flu."
There were fewer deaths from the flu reported last season but higher hospitalization rates. Researchers say that even if people who are vaccinated get the flu, and need to be hospitalized, the vaccine can still offer partial protection and lower the risk of death from the infection.
During the 2016-2017 flu season, the hospitalization rate was double that of the 2015-2016 season and higher across all age groups. In most seasons, the higher hospitalization rates are among older adults 65 and older.
Young children are another vulnerable group when it comes to influenza severity, hospitalizations and deaths.
"Annual vaccination is the first and most important step in protecting children against the flu," said Patricia A. Stinchfield, senior director of Infection Prevention and Control and pediatric nurse practitioner in Infectious Disease/Immunology at Children's Minnesota. "If flu was just the flu, a runny nose [or] cough we would not vaccinate. Children do die of the flu."
Roughly 105 children died last year of the flu, and flu related hospitalizations have nearly quadrupled -- from 7,000 to 26,000 -- since 2010.
Stinchfield said vaccines reduced 51 percent of deaths in children with underlying conditions, and by 65 percent among healthy children, between 2010 and 2014. Research showed that 57 percent of children who were severely ill with the flu had not gotten the flu vaccine.
"Approximately 76.3 percent of children age 6 to 23 months old were vaccinated last season, exceeding the goal -- but that was the only age group to meet that goal," Stinchfield said. "Our goal is to increase coverage for children of all ages."
For more than 20 years the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, or NFID, has gathered public partners to address flu season.
"We now produce an ample supply of vaccine and vaccine options," said Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of NFID and professor of Preventive Medicine and Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. "But we're still not meeting U.S. public health goals for vaccine coverage among certain groups. Influenza is an unpredictable infectious disease."
"It will be severe and there will always be a flu season. Annual vaccination will always be our first and best defense against the flu," Schaffner said.