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Health officials urge Americans to get flu shots before November

Photo of HHS Secretary Alex Azar smiling as he receives his flu shot
Alex Azar (center) receives his flu shot just beflore Redskins legend Mark Way during a press conference. Photo courtesy of NFID

Public health officials on Thursday urged Americans to get their seasonal flu vaccine early this year, in case the U.S. follows Australia's season in which the virus hit many people early.

Why it matters: While public health officials admit the vaccine is not 100% effective, there's growing research showing that the vaccine reduces the severe and sometimes deadly complications from the disease and can protect newborns if the mother receives the vaccine while pregnant.

"We all know it will not provide 100% protection. But it will reduce the severity of the disease and it will save children's lives."
— Patricia Whitley-Williams, president-elect, National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID)

The latest: Australia's flu season — which can provide an indication, but does not necessarily foretell the severity of the U.S. season — started early and is considered to be one of the worst influenza seasons the country has seen.

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention labels Oct. 1 as the start of flu season for statistical purposes, but scattered reports show some places in the U.S. have started reporting cases already, including Santa Clara County in California where 2 people died recently.
  • The CDC has not yet released the figures of estimated deaths in the U.S. for the 2018–2019 flu season. But that season isn't believed to have been as deadly as the season before that, which killed at least 80,000 people.

What they're saying: Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, tells Axios that while last season may not have been as deadly as the 2017–2018 season, it demonstrated how quickly strains can mutate.

  • Last season started with H1N1 virus being the main strain, but then had a second wave that shifted to an H3N2 strain, Fauci says.
  • "Get the vaccine early," he adds.
  • NFID medical director William Schaffner tells Axios that while the anti-vaccination movement doesn't impact flu vaccinations much, vaccine hesitancy can play a big role and is characterized by the World Health Organization as one of the top 10 "threats to public health" (as is the small but deadly possibility of a pandemic flu).

Background: During a news conference on Thursday, public health officials said they continue trying to address the low rate of vaccination, which they attribute mainly to people believing the shot isn't necessary because it's not highly effective. "We need to explain ... the importance of partial protection," said Schaffner.

  • The NFID Thursday released survey results from 1,002 complete responses that show while 60% of respondents believe the vaccine is the best way to protect against the flu, only 52% definitely plan to get the shot.
  • "That means 40% of the other people have not gotten the message," Schaffner tells Axios.
  • Another point of concern from the survey is that a quarter of the people who are at higher risk for flu-related complications — including as those with diabetes, heart or lung conditions, or are 65 years and older — indicated they were not planning to get vaccinated, says Schaffner, who also is professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

What's next: HHS Secretary Alex Azar, who was also speaking at the press conference, said one of his priorities is to "modernize" flu vaccine production from its current dependence on using 900,000 chicken eggs per day for 6 months to produce the majority of flu vaccines.

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