Last year over 36,000 Americans died from exposure to the flu, and of those, more than 32,000 were 65 years of age or older. Another 200,000 people were hospitalized with symptoms of the illness. The flu and pneumonia (the most common complication of the flu) combined are the fifth leading cause of death among Americans age 65 and older.
"With those grim numbers behind us, it’s important that we look ahead of us and make sure that this nation is better prepared than we were last year. And I’m pleased to report that we are ready, that the nation should have plenty of flu vaccine to meet the virus’s that are now circulating," said Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho). "Now it’s up to senior citizens, and those who provide care, to get vaccinated."
The Chairman of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging noted that Medicare pays 100 percent of the cost for both the flu and pneumonia vaccinations. The pneumonia vaccine needs only to be given once to those 65 and older, while the flu vaccine must be given each year to meet changes in that virus.
"Last year's flu vaccine shortages combined with an unusually early flu season resulted in heightened awareness to the importance of immunization," Chairman Craig said. "In my own state of Idaho, with the exception of one young victim, all of those who died from the flu were over the age of 50. We cannot underestimate the danger it poses to the seniors of today and boomers of tomorrow."
Craig’s comment’s came at a U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging hearing held as part of the National Adult Immunization Awareness Week, which runs September 26 through October 2.
Witnesses at the hearing said that despite the fact that 83 million Americans were immunized last year – the highest immunization rate ever for influenza – only 6 out of every 10 senior citizens were immunized.
"Although this is a higher percentage of influenza vaccination than for other targeted groups, it is still insufficient," said Dr. Stephen Ostroff of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Federal officials reported that 100 million doses of influenza vaccine will be available to Americans this season – a record number. Howard Pien, President and CEO of the Chiron Corporation, said that his firm will deliver 25 percent more flu vaccine to the United States than it did last year. He also told the committee that his company and others are working with the CDC to establish a "strategic reserve" of over 4 million doses of influenza vaccine just in case there should be a shortage, as there was last year.
"The key challenge for the 2004/05 influenza season will most likely not be managing a supply shortage but, rather, ensuring that all of the doses of influenza vaccine produced end up in the arms of individuals," Pien said.
At the hearing the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report titled "Infectious Disease Preparedness: Federal Challenges in Responding to Influenza Outbreaks." That report indicates that there are still challenges to ensure an adequate and timely flu vaccine, especially in a flu pandemic. The current system in the United States relies up a 50 year old method that uses specially harvested chicken eggs to produce licensed influenza vaccines.
To speed up that process, the CDC said federal agencies are encouraging the development and U.S. licensure of influenza vaccines produced with new technology, including the development of cell culture-based vaccines. Those types of vaccines are already in use in several other nations.