Vaccines offer simple answers

For years there has been broad agreement in the public health and scientific community that while better flu vaccines are needed, a yearly seasonal flu vaccine is the best preventive method against influenza.

So it’s not surprising that health officials —- flu season is mild so far in Las Vegas but deadly back East —- advise people every year to get vaccinated against a virus that over a recent 30-year span killed between 3,000 and 49,000 people each year, according to the CDC.

Like most Americans, I assumed health-care workers, particularly those in hospitals and nursing homes, would be vaccinated. Surely they’d do everything possible not to spread illness to people whose health is compromised.

But six years ago I learned 36 percent of health workers got vaccinated —- they turned their back on scientific-based medicine despite professional and ethical obligations to put the patient first.

It didn’t matter to more than half of health workers that studies showed, as the American College of Physicians noted in 2007, that transmission of influenza from health workers to patients was documented in nearly every health care setting —- and that studies showed 70 percent of health professionals continued to work despite being ill with the flu, increasing exposure of patients and co-workers.

Nor did it matter to health workers that a 2002 study published in the respected Lancet medical journal reported median excess mortality rates of 16 from hospital-acquired influenza, with rates in excess of 33 to 60 percent for ICU and transplant units. And it didn’t matter that another 2002 Lancet study reported a 7 percent drop in mortality rate in hospitals where health care workers had been vaccinated.

Given that the majority of health workers ignored scientific evidence calling for them to get a flu shot, it isn’t shocking that many hospitals —- some persuaded by federal officials warning of public relations consequences —- had to make it mandatory for staff to get flu shots or to wear a mask in patient areas if they chose not to be vaccinated, or cannot, because of allergy.

While 400 hospitals have gone mandatory, others continue their dangerous “hands off” policy.

The Valley Health System has yet to make flu vaccinations mandatory. The vaccination rate at its hospitals – Desert Springs, Summerlin, Centennial Hills, Spring Valley and Valley – is 60 percent, according to spokeswoman Gretchen Papez. She said a mandatory program starts next flu season.

The good news in Las Vegas is that the HCA hospital chain —- its more than 160 hospitals include the Sunrise, Sunrise Children’s, MountainView and Southern Hills hospitals —- put the mandatory policy in place in 2009. University Medical Center and the three St. Rose Dominican Hospitals —- Siena, San Martin and Rose de Lima —- followed suit. Ninety percent of employees at the UMC and HCA hospitals are vaccinated —- 85 percent at St. Rose hospitals.

That some health workers still detest participation in a flu vaccination/mask program for reasons ranging from inconvenience and personal liberty concerns to a belief in “natural” alternatives – recently, seven Indiana nurses lost jobs for refusing shots —- isn’t startling in a nation where preventable medical mistakes and infections in hospitals kill 100,000 Americans a year.

Health experts have long known infections could be minimized if hospital staffs washed their hands more and cleaned high-touch surfaces daily with a disinfectant. They’ve also known use of safety checklists like those in the airline industry make it almost impossible to: leave surgical equipment inside patients; give someone the wrong medication; operate on a wrong body part.

And yet safety experts say errors and infections continue to climb.

Why? The cavalier attitude they displayed toward flu vaccinations no doubt holds for health care workers when it comes to utilizing other safety measures for patients.

They don’t want to be bothered.

Caul Harasim is the medical reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. His column appears Mondays. Harasim can be reached at pharasim@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2908.

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