One of the few predictable statistics in American public health is that between 35,000-40,000 people will die every year from ‘ordinary’ influenza. Most of these deaths are preventable. Yet we do nothing.
In the U.S., influenza kills approximately the same number of people every year as breast cancer does. But unlike breast cancer, we don’t need to run, walk, jump, pogostick, or unicycle for the ‘cure.’ All we need to do is vaccinate enough of the appropriate people. It’s that simple.
An effective influenza vaccination policy would involve the mass vaccination of those most likely to transmit influenza: children aged 5-18. Yet our public health response to the annual equivalent of twelve 9/11s is miserable. We can’t even successfully vaccinate a high-risk group, children under 24 months old (italics mine):
Beginning with the 2004–05 influenza season, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommended that all children aged 6–23 months receive influenza vaccinations annually. Other children recommended to receive influenza vaccinations include those aged 6 months–18 years who have certain high-risk medical conditions, those on chronic aspirin therapy, those who are household contacts of persons at high risk for influenza complications, and, since 2006, all children aged 24–59 months. Previously unvaccinated children aged <9 years need 2 doses administered at least 1 month apart to be considered fully vaccinated. This report assesses influenza vaccination coverage among children aged 6--23 months during the 2005--06 influenza season by using data from six immunization information system (IIS) sentinel sites. The findings demonstrate that vaccination coverage with 1 or more doses varied widely (range: 6.6% to 60.4%) among sites, with coverage increasing from the preceding influenza season in four of the six sites. However, <23% of children in five of the sites were fully vaccinated, underscoring the need for increased measures to improve the proportion of children who are fully vaccinated.
This is a complete failure of the basic function of government to protect the life and health of the weakest among us.
Influenza also affects other public health issues, such as antibiotic resistance. About half of those who die from influenza are ‘finished off’ by a secondary bacterial infection (Streptococcus pneumoniae). While most hospitalized influenza patients don’t die (thankfully), many have secondary bacterial infections requiring antibiotic therapy. This antibiotic use could be greatly reduced if the number of influenza cases were greatly lowered.
How seriously can any of our bioterrorism or biopreparedness measures be taken when we can’t even do this right, let alone adopt an effective vaccination strategy.
When are we get serious about the clear and present biological threat of annual influenza? Would a stupid ribbon help?