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Press Statement

For Immediate Release   Thursday, Oct. 2, 1997


HHS Secretary Donna E. Shalala today urged older Americans to make plans now for a flu shot within the next two months to help protect against the potentially life-threatening annual flu epidemic.

"The flu poses a serious potential hazard to older Americans, but it's a hazard we can all protect against," Secretary Shalala said. "More older Americans are getting their shots, especially since Medicare has begun to pay for them without any required copayment. But we still have to do better, particularly among our minority populations, to achieve a satisfactory level of flu immunization."

HHS' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports today that 58 percent of Americans aged 65 and older received the flu shot in 1995, an 8 percent increase since 1993, when Medicare began paying for the shots. However, among older African-Americans, only 39 percent got their shots in 1995, and among older Hispanics, just 50 percent did. The survey results are contained in CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report this week.

This week's edition of MMWR also includes an article on missed opportunities to provide flu and pneumococcal vaccines to Medicare patients. According to a random survey, hospitals in 12 western states missed at least one opportunity to administer the flu vaccine in 65 percent of cases examined. Hospitals missed the opportunities because vaccination histories rarely are included in the hospital medical record.

"Flu and its most common complication, pneumonia, remain the sixth leading cause of death in the United States," Secretary Shalala said. "Flu shots work, but not when the vaccine sits on the shelf. Everyone who comes in contact with senior citizens, whether a relative or a doctor or a pharmacist, should take the opportunity to remind them that flu shots are important, and free."

In the United States each winter, a flu epidemic sweeps the country killing, in a typical year, 20,000 Americans, most of them over age 65.

Flu shots must be given annually because the influenza virus changes from year to year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that the best time to conduct annual vaccination campaigns is between October and mid-November.

However, after mid-November older adults and people with chronic illnesses may still benefit from influenza vaccination, even after flu cases begin to occur in the community.

"We've seen a slight increase in vaccinations among Hispanic and African-Americans, but health care providers and communities need to make an extra effort to close that gap and keep the overall number of older Americans receiving flu shots going up," said CDC Director David Satcher, M.D., Ph.D.

Some studies indicate that some older adults may avoid being vaccinated because they mistakenly believe that the flu shot can cause the flu. "It's impossible for the flu vaccine to cause influenza. That's a myth that needs to be corrected. You might expect some redness or soreness at the site of the injection, but you won't get the flu. The vaccine takes about 10-14 days to begin its full protection. If you develop the flu shortly after being vaccinated, you were probably exposed to the virus before you developed immunity from the shot," said CDC's Jose Cordero, M.D.

Medicare coverage for flu shots for the elderly began in 1993, as the Clinton administration launched an effort to increase immunization rates among older adults. The shots are free for those enrolled in Medicare Part B from physicians who accept Medicare payment as full payment. Medicare also covers vaccinations against pneumonia. A beneficiary who has not previously received the pneumococcal vaccine can obtain it at the same time as the flu shot.

For more information about receiving a flu shot covered by Medicare, contact: 1-800-638-6833. For more information about influenza disease and CDC's recommendations for influenza vaccination, telephone the CDC National Immunization Information Hotline (800) 232-2522, English, and (800) 232-0233, Spanish, or visit CDC's Internet page at For weekly updates on influenza cases during the season, visit diseases/flu/weekly.htm.


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