Every year around this time, warnings of flu season reach their peak. Experts estimate that around 200,000 people every year are hospitalized due to flu infection, yet there is a way, thanks to modern medicine, to reduce the risk of flu. Along with simple habits like frequent hand washing and staying away from sick people, the annual flu vaccine can help prevent the spread of flu. Yet, many nursing homes and similar assisted living facilities have a relatively low rate of vaccination for their residents and staff.
In a new survey from the National Poll on Healthy Aging, conducted by the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation, just over two thousand Americans aged between 50 and 80 - a nationally representative sample - were asked about flu vaccination expectations for nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
According to the poll’s results, almost 75 percent of individuals believe that nursing homes and other long-term care facilities should require their staff to get a flu vaccine. About 60 percent say that all patients should get a flu vaccine, and 70 percent would be less likely to choose a care facility for themselves or for others if one-third or a greater percentage of the facility’s staff did not receive flu shots.
The poll is partially a result of a serious problem that is emerging: nursing homes and other long-term care facilities (68 percent of staff vaccinated) do not meet the same standard of vaccination against the flu as hospitals and other healthcare settings (92 percent of staff vaccinated).
Why is it particularly important for older people to get a flu vaccine? This portion of the population is more susceptible than the younger portion of the population, as the immune system naturally grows weaker with age. Additionally, older people have an increased likelihood of pneumonia and other dangerous complications once infected with flu.
Widespread vaccination for the flu (and other infections) also promotes herd immunity, a phenomenon that is important for people with weakened immune systems or immune disorders that prevent them from being healthy enough to receive a flu vaccine. Herd immunity makes it harder for a virus to be transmitted among a population, given a majority of the population is vaccinated against the virus, protecting those who cannot be vaccinated.
Director of the new poll, Preeti Malani, MD, from the University of Michigan Medical School, strongly encourages individuals to ask nursing homes about their vaccination policies.
“Flu and pneumonia are a critical health concern and in recent years have resulted in over 50,000 deaths annually, making it the 8th leading cause of death just behind diabetes," explained Alison Bryant, PhD from AARP, which funded the survey. "Over 80 percent of these deaths were among older adults ages 65 and older. Increasing vaccination rates to increase herd immunity is imperative to the health and lives of our most vulnerable."