CDC Director Tom Frieden Talks Flu Vaccines

Here’s why you want to get immunized.

By Lisa Esposito

Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, believes in influenza immunization. So he rolled up his sleeve and got his own flu vaccine – in front of fellow physicians and members of the audience at a recent conference at the National Press Club in the District of Columbia.

While the CDC has announced a guideline shift for kids’ flu vaccines, as well as for pneumococcal vaccines for seniors, Frieden’s main message is this: Everyone 6 months and older should get a flu shot, every year. He talked about vaccine options – including nasal spray, small-needle injections and “less-small needle injections,” which drew some smiles at the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases-sponsored conference. The reaction was more somber to the news that more than 100 children in the U.S. died from flu-related complications last year.

In a pre-conference talk with U.S. News, Frieden discussed the need to get the vaccine at any age, and how health care providers can make that easier. He’s already taken his 10-year-old son for one, and of his 20-year-old son in college, Frieden noted, “He went to the clinic last year to get Tylenol for a headache – and they told him you can’t get Tylenol until you get a flu shot.”

Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, receives a flu shot at the National Press Club. Photo by AP.

Here’s more of what Frieden had to say throughout the morning.

[Read: Making the Transition to College Health Care.]

Do you expect to see new flu strains this year?

We can’t predict what this season is going to look like – more severe or less severe. We can’t predict which strains are going to be circulating, but we can predict that the best way you can protect yourself against the flu is to get a flu vaccination this year, and now’s the time to start getting it.

You may remember [2013] was a relatively bad year for flu. There were tens of millions of illnesses. Lots of people went to the hospital. It hit young adults and middle-aged people harder than it usually does, and they accounted for a larger proportion of cases. Last year it was predominantly the H1N1 strain that first emerged in 2009. That strain remains in this year’s flu shot. And you need this year’s flu vaccination to protect you against this year’s flu.

How well do flu vaccines really work?

It’s not a perfect vaccine, but it’s a safe vaccine, and it’s the best way to protect yourself from flu. It protects almost two-thirds of the time. So we’d love it to be 100 percent or 95 percent like many of our vaccines – but it’s a lot better than hope. It’s a lot better than luck. So if you get it, your risk of getting the flu is cut down by more than 60 percent. It’s a safe and effective vaccine. I get it, my family gets it [and] I recommend that pregnant women get it.

New this year: We’re preferentially recommending nasal spray vaccine for healthy children 2 to 8 years old who don’t have any contraindications or precautions, when it’s available immediately. But if it’s not available immediately, by all means get any available form of flu vaccinate – they all work.

[Read: Why You Should Get the Flu Vaccine.]

Of children who died from flu, how many were not vaccinated?

Of those more than 100 kids who died of flu, first off – we know that the actual number’s higher, [but] we’re not able to identify each such tragic event. And we know that about half those kids didn’t have a pre-existing condition. So they didn’t have some health problem that would have identified them as high-risk.

We know that the overwhelming majority, about 90 percent, didn’t get a flu shot. So please, get a flu shot for yourself and your kids this year and every year. There are many more options for flu vaccination.

Doctors can do a lot here. It increases the vaccination rate as doctors make it routine and easy for kids to get vaccinated. [In many of the cases when kids weren’t vaccinated], it wasn’t that the parent didn’t want a vaccine – it’s just that the system didn’t work for them.

[Read: Top Reasons Children End Up in the Hospital.]

How about enterovirus?

It’s very important that kids with asthma get the flu vaccine, because that will protect them from flu – and some of the most severe cases of enterovirus D-68 have been in kids with asthma that hasn’t been well controlled.

[Note: During the conference, pediatrician Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, emphasized that despite recent clusters of respiratory illness from enterovirus, flu poses a much wider and graver risk.]

Will there be enough flu vaccine?

We’re confident that there will be ample supply this year. We’re told by the manufacturers that they’ll be bringing about 150,000 doses of vaccine to the market.

There is plenty of flu vaccine to go around – we hope everyone will take advantage of it.

[Read: Vaccine Safety: Getting the Message to Parents in Doubt.]