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HHS News

Thursday, October 7, 1999
Contact: CDC, Division of Media Relations
(404) 639-3286

Secretary Shalala Urges Older Americans to get 1999 flu shot

HHS Secretary Donna E. Shalala today urged older Americans to start getting their 1999 flu shots to help protect against potentially life-threatening influenza infections.

Each winter, a flu epidemic sweeps the country and is responsible for killing on average 20,000 Americans, most of them over age 65. While 65 percent of seniors receive the flu shot, millions more remain unprotected, even though the vaccinations are free under Medicare.

The flu poses a serious potential hazard to older Americans, but it's a hazard we can all protect against," Secretary Shalala said. "Every senior citizen needs to know that flu and pneumonia shots are convenient, free under Medicare, and sometimes lifesaving. Tragically, many serious cases of flu and even deaths could be prevented through immunizations. Flu shots work, but not when the vaccine sits on the shelf."

Pneumococcal disease, a common cause of pneumonia, kills more than 10,000 Americans each year, many of them age 65 and older. "Together, influenza and pneumococcal disease are the most common causes of death in Americans from diseases that can be prevented by vaccines," Secretary Shalala said.

Flu shots must be given every year because the influenza virus changes from year to year and because antibody protection from the vaccine wanes over time. Flu vaccine is specifically recommended for people who are at high risk for developing serious complications as a result of influenza infection. These groups include all people aged 65 years or older; all people in nursing homes; and people of any age with chronic diseases of the heart, lung, or kidneys, diabetes, immunosuppression or severe forms of anemia.

Adults with diabetes are three times more likely to die from influenza. This is the second year of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) campaign encouraging people with diabetes to get an annual flu shot. The campaign consists of public service announcements in English and Spanish, information for health-care providers and health systems interventions to ensure that patients with diabetes are reminded to get a flu shot.

The CDC recommends that the best time to conduct annual vaccination campaigns is between October and mid-November. However, after mid-November, people may still benefit from influenza vaccination, even after flu cases begin to occur in the community. Pneumococcal shots are recommended for most of the same people who should receive flu shots. Pneumococcal shots are usually given once and do not need to be repeated annually.

CDC reports today that influenza A(H3N2) viruses continued to predominate worldwide during May through September, 1999. In the United States, summer influenza activity included an outbreak of influenza A(H3N2) virus infections among tourists to Alaska and the Yukon Territory. The surveillance data are contained in CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) this week.

Also in the MMWR is a report on reasons given by Medicare beneficiaries for not receiving influenza or pneumococcal vaccinations. Not knowing vaccination was needed was the most commonly reported reason for not receiving influenza (19 percent) or pneumococcal (57 percent) vaccination. Cost was a factor for less than 2 percent.

"We must be vigilant during this time of year to take every opportunity to vaccinate our older adults and people with chronic illnesses to protect them from influenza and pneumococcal disease. These vaccines are critical to the health of our older Americans," said CDC Director Dr. Jeffrey Koplan.

Overall, 45 states have already surpassed the Year 2000 goal of having 60 percent of seniors immunized against the flu. But while 68 percent of white Americans over age 65 usually receive flu shots, statistics from 1997 show that only 50 percent of African Americans and 58 percent of Hispanics were vaccinated.

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.

"Millions have benefitted from the flu and pneumonia shots that Medicare provides, but millions more still need them," said Michael Hash, deputy administrator of the Health Care Financing Administration (HCFA), the agency that runs Medicare. "Too often, people don't get the immunizations that could save their lives. People age 65 and over are more likely to get flu or pneumonia and to experience serious complications. That's why we're reaching out to remind beneficiaries that it's important to get their shots and that they are covered by Medicare."

HCFA has undertaken an aggressive outreach program to remind seniors of Medicare's free flu vaccination benefit. The agency is mailing nearly 8 million postcards in four languages to remind Medicare beneficiaries to get immunized and is distributing posters to senior centers, clinics and other places where Medicare beneficiaries are likely to see them. In addition, HCFA plans to air two 30-second television public service announcements in six target cities during flu season this year, and television and radio announcements have been produced in English and Spanish for local outlets to use across the country.

As part of its efforts, HCFA also is reaching out to African American communities to raise awareness about the need for flu shots. Medicare's quality-review organizations have begun a three-year project to measurably reduce death rates among Medicare beneficiaries. These organizations also have joined with historically black colleges and universities to develop strategies for boosting immunization rates among African American beneficiaries. HCFA also is distributing a half-hour video documentary on the 1918 flu epidemic that took a heavy toll on Baltimore's African American population.

For more information about receiving a flu shot covered by Medicare, call toll-free 1-800-638-6833 or visit Medicare's Web site at For more information about influenza disease and CDC's recommendations for influenza vaccination, call the CDC National Immunization Information Hotline at 1-800-232-2522 (English) or 1-800-232-0233 (Spanish), or visit CDC's Web site at For weekly updates on influenza cases during the season, visit


Note: For other HHS Press Releases and Fact Sheets pertaining to the subject of this announcement, please visit our Press Release and Fact Sheet search engine at:


Flu Season 1999-2000: See also...

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