Statistics released this week by the Illinois Department of Public Health show the contagious influenza virus is proving no match for any governmental measures taken to stop it.
By most measures, the new flu season has started slowly in the United States, though strains of the virus do exist in the air. Last week, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the rate of confirmed flu cases nationwide had gone up just 1 percent over the previous week. Nearly 72 percent of hospitalizations have been among children, not spread by unimmunized adults.
On Aug. 31, Illinois Department of Public Health Director Nirav Shah warned of higher rates of the disease in the state, urging residents to get their shots early to catch the flu in time.
No shots are required for infants and children younger than 6 months, but public health officials say most such children will be vaccinated for flu this year. Adults over the age of 6 months are required to get a flu shot by the start of the flu season.
In Illinois, the total number of hospitalizations reported this year for the flu — 16,427 as of Tuesday — is at a higher rate than any prior year except 2011-12. But only 73 percent of those hospitalized have been vaccinated against the disease, Shah says.
After several influenza outbreaks in Illinois, including a devastating outbreak of the pandemic H1N1 virus in 2009, there has been a push by public health officials to make it a legal requirement for all adults to get vaccinated.
Sen. Susan Garrett (D-Lake Forest) supports the idea of making it a legal requirement but, says she would fight any effort to forbid that.
That’s unlikely to happen, given the political clout of the medical community. Two years ago, a bill mandating flu shots for Illinois health care workers passed the state Senate by a 30-0 vote but failed in the House.
“When it became clear it wasn’t going to get through the House, the bill was set aside,” Garrett said. “But, I think they took note of our efforts and hopefully want to better protect the health care workers.”
Public health officials believe a flu shot will reduce the spread of the virus and the financial burden of making it widely available, since it is relatively simple and cheap.
States such as Washington, Oregon and Florida are requiring flu shots, according to Shah. A report from the Pew Charitable Trusts found 55 states consider the flu vaccine a public health priority. That is double the figure from 2000, when that study was done.
“The level of flu vaccination across the country is more important than any one particular state,” Shah said this week.
Shah said even though we may have had a mild flu season thus far, it is important to remember the vaccine never guarantees 100 percent protection against the virus.
“It’s the only effective defense,” he said.
Last year, nearly 99 percent of Illinois residents got their flu shots, according to the state Health Department. That’s far below the 92 percent national average and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ recommendation that 90 percent get one, to avoid complications.
As pediatrician and vocal flu fighter Nancy Stevens said recently: “Each year, it’s a good thing we have a flu shot because we’ve wasted so many vaccines over the years.”
Disposable shots, you might say.
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