Flu :: Year-round flu shots contribute to higher vaccination rates

It’s flu season, but it may not be the best time to schedule your child’s flu shot, according to one Penn State physician and researcher. Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center pediatrician Ian M. Paul recently studied vaccination records of two high-risk pediatric groups — infants less than age 2 years and children with asthma — and found that year-round scheduling of flu shot appointments contributes significantly to better vaccination rates.

The study findings were recently released in the journal Ambulatory Pediatrics.

In the first study of its kind, Paul studied vaccination rates for infants and children with asthma at one clinic and compared results for the fall and winter seasons of 2003-2004 and 2004-2005. In the first year, the clinic began scheduling flu shot appointments in September, one month before the vaccine became available. The second year, appointments were made beginning in February, nearly eight months before the vaccine became available, as physicians saw patients for other routine treatment and care.

In 2003-2004, 40 percent of infants ages 6 to 23 months were immunized, compared to 74 percent in 2004-2005. Similarly, 23 percent of patients under 21 with asthma were immunized during the first year, compared to 35 percent the second year. Both groups received their flu shots earlier in the season in 2004-2005, from September to November rather than November to January in 2003-2004.

“If we set up appointments for a flu shot ahead of time like we do for dentist visits, there’s much less chance we’re going to miss getting it to people who need it,” Paul said. “If we plan ahead and get people in earlier in the season, it would limit that midwinter flood of calls and the rush to get people in. It?s a much more organized way of delivering the immunization.”

Because flu shots are required annually to be effective instead of twice in a lifetime, like measles, or once every 10 years, like tetanus, patient access to flu clinics or family practitioners and vaccine supply are more problematic. It’s a problem that will become more obvious this flu season, said Paul, because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommend the flu shot for all children under age 5, instead of children under 2.

According to the CDC, children under 2 years old are more likely to be hospitalized for serious flu complications than older, healthy children. Of the 152 reported flu-related deaths among children under age 18 during the 2003-2004 flu season, almost all were children under age 5. More than half had an underlying illness, but nearly 40 percent were previously healthy.

Paul said he hopes other primary care providers and researchers will follow his study with their own look at vaccination rates and scheduling to see just how effective year-round scheduling could be. Because his study compared two historic groups rather than a study group and a control group from the same year, it does not account for every factor that may have contributed to the results. Media coverage differences from year to year, vaccine supply and changing recommendations for vaccination can also affect the number of people seeking flu shots each year.

“While it may not be the only reason we saw such an increase in vaccination rates, it seems like common sense to say this is a simple way to overcome some of the barriers to vaccination,” Paul said. “It provides a more consistent message from doctors to families about the importance of a flu shot, especially for those at high risk, and it provides a model that can be adapted to other groups, such as the elderly. These study findings are certainly very promising.”

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