Flu Vaccination Protects Entire Communities

When children are vaccinated against the seasonal flu, the entire community benefits. A study by theNational Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) found that people living in communities in which about 80 percent of the children were vaccinated were much less likely to contract seasonal influenza, even if they themselves had not been vaccinated. This practice is known as “herd immunity” whereby the higher the percent of a population that is immunized for a given disease, the less likely a major epidemic will occur. The goal of herd immunity is to immunize 100 percent of the population.

The study was conducted by NIAID in partnership with the Canadian Institutes for Health Research and examined 49 rural Hutterite colonies, a communal branch of Anabaptists, in Western Canada that have limited contact with surrounding communities. Dr Mark Loeb, of McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, led the research.

The seasonal flu is a major cause of illness and death that every year kills 36,000 Americans and hospitalizes 200,000 more. At the moment, U.S. policy is to immunize those at high risk of complications, which equals about 85 percent of the population. However, a panel of advisors to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently recommended a new approach that will expand the recommendation to all people over six months old beginning in the 2010-2011 flu season.

The authors of this Canadian study argued that broadening the U.S. policy to use immunization to interrupt a virus from spreading in a community might be worth exploring as this could protect an entire population, including those at high risk. Since children and adolescents appear to play an important role in spreading the flu, vaccinating this group could be an effective strategy for preventing spread and protecting the non-immunized. Research shows that less than half the number of people recommended for vaccination actually get their flu shot.

The seasonal flu vaccine is available – conveniently and often at a low cost – at many major chain drug and retail stores, such as Walgreens, CVS and Target. Whether you are in a high or low risk group, it makes sense to get vaccinated.

While the vaccine offers the best protection against contracting the flu, the CDC also recommendsother important preventive steps including:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs spread this way.
  • Disinfect to help destroy viruses and bacteria living on surfaces, especially frequently touched door knobs, hand rails, bathroom fixtures, kitchen counters and children’s toys. One tablespoon of household bleach in a quart of water makes a handy, inexpensive surface disinfectant. Wash surfaces first with soapy water, rinse and then apply bleach solution. Let air dry.
  • Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
  • If you are sick with flu-like illness, CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone except to get medical care or for other necessities.

Read more about protecting yourself and your family against the flu at www.fluandhealth.org.

(Ralph Morris, M.D., M.P.H., is a preventive health and public health physician, and a member of the Water Quality & Health Council.)