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Health Workers Lax on Flu Shots

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and 23 other organizations called on health care workers Wednesday to improve their "dismal" rates of flu vaccination to protect vulnerable patients from serious illness and possible death.

Only 36 percent of doctors, nurses and other personnel in hospitals, nursing homes, home health care and emergency medical services get flu shots each year, according to a report by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. The report was released Wednesday in Atlanta at a meeting of the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.

An unknown percentage of those who forgo the shot later develop influenza and transmit it to patients, the foundation said. Why so few health care workers get immunized is a puzzle: It is believed that mistaken fears of the vaccine causing flu are partly to blame plus a lack of employer campaigns that make getting the shots easy.

Flu cases among patients, who are likely to be elderly or to have impaired immune systems from illness or treatment, result in longer hospitalizations, illness and death, the group said, citing articles in major medical journals analyzing institutional clusters of flu. In addition, cases of flu among health care workers cause short staffing, which in turn leads to reduced admissions, double shifts among remaining staff and a potential increase in medical errors.

"We are not telling [health care workers] to do this" for themselves, said Dr. Kathleen Neuzil, who represents the American College of Physicians, one of the organizations pushing for the immunizations.. "That is an extra bonus, if you reduce influenza for yourself. What we are really saying is: Do this for the protection of your vulnerable patients."

The finding that only 36 percent of health care workers get flu shots each year comes from the National Health Interview Survey, an annual CDC survey of a representative sample of the U.S. population. Studies in major medical journalshave confirmed that health care workers continue to work when sick, and spread flu in organ transplant units, neonatal intensive care units, other hospital wards and long-term care facilities, the foundation said.

In an average year, 10 percent to 20 percent of Americans contract influenza. It causes 36,000 deaths and 114,000 hospitalizations in the United States each year, the CDC estimates. Overall, about one-fourth of Americans get a flu shot each year, though in some groups such as the elderly the rate is much higher.

In addition to the CDC, organizations backing the call include medical societies, several large medical institutions and the Service Employees International Union, which represents health care workers.

The CDC plans additional surveillance to determine why health care workers do not take the flu shot, said medical epidemiologist Dr. Raymond Strikas.

Copyright 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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