We have multiple flu vaccine options available to protect us from the flu, but there is still a lot of misinformation out there. Many people believe that flu vaccines are dangerous, don't work or will actually give you the flu.
The CDC and US Department of Health and Human Services designate one week each year as "National Influenza Vaccination Week" with the goal to educate and increase awareness about the importance of the flu vaccine. Dr. Bresee believes changing the public's perception about the flu vaccine will be a challenge for several reasons.
"It is a challenge because there is a large number of people out there that don't get the flu vaccine for whatever reason - including because they are worried that it doesn't work, it will give them the flu or any number of other reasons. I think we have done a good job over the past several years in increasing awareness about the need for the flu vaccine. It has shown in the fact that in most groups we have seen the rates of flu vaccine use has gone up. We still have a long way to go though."
"The National Influenza Vaccination Week is part of the effort to increase awareness of the need for the flu vaccine but really it's just education. Changing a population's belief system or educating a population to do something takes a while. We are in it for the long haul. We will continue to collect data to show that the vaccine is safe and we will continue to collect data to show how effective the vaccine is. We just have to do a good job of making people aware of that. I suspect that because vaccine use rates are going up over time, we are creating a larger group of people each year who have gotten the vaccine without getting sick and gotten the vaccine and didn't get the flu that year. I think over time we'll do better and better but it's certainly not an overnight thing."
New Flu Threats
With the H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic of 2009 causing such concern on a global level, widespread reports about new swine origin influenza virus infections in humans have caused concern.
A particular case concerning three children in Iowa in the Fall of 2011 garnered national attention and I asked Dr. Bresee what the significance of those cases might be. He replied that "We don't think there is any reason for the public to be concerned. In 2007, the CDC and state health departments created a novel influenza reporting system. It was created to keep track of avian influenza in Asia and Africa so that if a traveler came in, we would find it. But what has happened is we have seen more and more reports of swine origin influenza. We have seen over 30 cases of swine virus in humans since we made that rule but this year  we have seen 10, which is a high number compared to what we normally see each year."
"These three kids in Iowa are interesting because they didn't seem to have an obvious exposure to a pig, which most cases do. So the question became - where did the kids get the virus? It became an issue that this virus appears to be transmissible between humans. We don't think there is anything that people should be worried about but people should know that the CDC and state health departments are watching this really closely and with each of these cases that we identify we do a pretty intensive investigation with our state health department partners and if there is anything to be concerned about, we let the public know."
Dr. Bresee noted that most swine origin influenza infections in humans result in relatively mild illnesses. He stated this was the case for these three children as well. "Yes, the three kids had mild respiratory illness with a little fever and got over it pretty quickly."
The CDC and US Department of Health and Human Services are at the forefront of the fight against influenza. They work tirelessly to develop vaccines and track the virus each year so they can protect as many people as possible from it. I appreciate Dr. Bresee taking the time to speak with me about their efforts.