While 2009 H1N1 influenza has disappeared from the front pages and nightly newscasts, the issues the novel strain raised remain critically important, especially as another influenza season nears. Just because our experience with H1N1 was not as dire as some feared—although it did cause unexpected complications and mortality in unique populations—now is neither the time to let our guard down nor to become complacent about preparing for either seasonal or pandemic influenza.
As we learned once again with 2009 H1N1, vaccination is the most effective protection against influenza for both patients and those who care for them. Reflecting this experience, the long safety record of annual immunization, and the importance of preventing influenza across the nation’s population, the federal Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommended in February that nearly everyone—namely, all people aged 6 months or older—be vaccinated annually against influenza. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) endorsed the recommendation last month in an early online edition of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR).
Historically—and sadly—less than half of the people recommended for seasonal influenza vaccination typically get immunized, according to CDC. As experts in infectious diseases, we can play an important role in improving these rates by providing accurate information to our patients and our colleagues about the benefits and risks of influenza vaccination. Our actions will speak louder than words.
Each year, fewer than two in five health care workers (HCWs), on average, are immunized against influenza, a dismal rate that puts both providers and their patients at greater risk. In a July letter to CDC, IDSA reiterated our support for mandatory influenza vaccination of HCWs in response to the agency’s updated draft guidance for preventing seasonal influenza in health care settings. (For more information, see related IDSA News article.) Simply put, it’s a patient safety issue. As health care providers, we and our colleagues owe it to our patients to roll up our sleeves and get immunized against influenza—this year and every year.
The 2009 H1N1 experience again highlighted concerns about the development of resistance to the few effective antiviral medications remaining in our arsenal of antiviral drugs. It remains critical to use these antivirals appropriately and judiciously to preserve their effectiveness for those who need them the most, including infants, pregnant women, and other patients most at risk for serious complications from influenza. We remain one mutation away from a strain of influenza that would put our nation’s health at serious risk, underscoring the need for appropriate use of antivirals and the development of new treatment options.
Given the continuing and real threat posed by the development of new pandemic influenza strains, it is more important than ever to ensure we are prepared. This requires, among other steps, adequate federal funding. That’s why it was disappointing to see lawmakers in the House of Representatives last month initially propose taking $2 billion in unspent funding originally allocated for pandemic influenza preparedness to offset other federal spending. Pandemic funding helps build the nation’s vaccine production capacity, influenza surveillance and laboratory testing, and planning efforts at the federal, state, and local levels.
Previous investments in these areas were critical in mitigating the effects of the H1N1 outbreak. IDSA joined several other groups in a July letter urging the Senate to protect these funds, and fortunately, both houses agreed to retain the funding for its original purpose: preparing America for a biological disaster. IDSA will continue to be vigilant to ensure that this money is retained for its intended purpose
With the dog days of summer now here and fall approaching, another influenza season will soon be upon us. All of us, from providers to patients to lawmakers, can do our part to help prepare for and protect against influenza, not only this year, but well into the future.
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