The holiday season is upon us. Unfortunately, the abundance of pumpkin spice and eggnog is also a sign that we’re entering prime flu season — a time of year particularly critical for senior citizens. In fact, this week is National Influenza Vaccination Week.
This year, up to 50 million Americans will contract the flu virus. For many young and healthy individuals, a bout with the flu means no more than missing a few days of work. But this year, anywhere from 55,000 to as many as 431,000 cases will require hospitalization, and 3,000 to 49,000 people will die. As in years past, senior citizens will likely suffer disproportionately and see a large share of related complications.
Fortunately, vaccinations can help protect older adults and reduce the instances and impact of the flu and other common infectious diseases, such as pneumonia and shingles. Five million to 10 million Americans develop pneumonia each year, the most frequent cause of hospitalization in the United States. Older Americans account for 1.1 million cases that lead to hospitalization. And 1 million Americans develop shingles annually, leading to 50,000 to 60,000 hospitalizations, as well as severe pain from postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) in 50 percent of cases in older adults.
The evidence proves that vaccinations work. Over the past six years alone, the flu vaccine has prevented roughly 13 million infections, more than 110,000 hospitalizations and more than 5.8 million medical visits. The pneumonia vaccine has the potential to prevent 1.2 million cases of nonbacteremic pneumonia in adults older than 40, and the shingles vaccine reduces infections and deaths by 51 and 33 percent, respectively.
Despite the effectiveness and availability of vaccines, however, an alarmingly high number of vulnerable adults do not protect themselves from these deadly diseases. In a country with some of the best vaccinations in the world, 50,000 to 90,000 adults nonetheless die from vaccine-preventable diseases each year, begging the question: How can we eliminate otherwise preventable deaths?
First and foremost, we must increase the educational outreach for vaccinations, targeting both health care providers and vulnerable adults, to address the misconceptions and knowledge gaps surrounding the benefits, efficacy, safety and necessity of vaccination.
In order to effectively educate the public, we also need coordination of adult vaccinations, much like the Vaccines for Children program. This approach could involve an interagency working group and nongovernmental leadership that coordinate immunization activities to address the unique needs of different demographics. Better use of immunization information systems to track vaccinations is also important in assisting diverse providers, generating vaccination reminders and tracking vaccine histories.
Though implementing these strategies will require government spending, it pales in comparison to the current economic burden of these diseases. Medicare beneficiaries hospitalized for pneumonia have $15,682 more in expenses than those without the infection. And direct and indirect costs associated with shingles total $1 billion annually. The costs for the flu are as high as $87 billion.
Vaccines are a cost-effective way of reducing this burden. Research shows that every dollar spent on immunization saves $6.30 in direct medical costs — a total savings of $10.5 billion per year.
Despite this clear economic incentive, Medicare’s regulations create financial barriers to vaccination. To increase vaccination rates, all ACIP-recommended vaccines should be covered under Medicare Part B, and coverage delays for new vaccines should be eliminated.
In addition to Medicare-imposed barriers, lags in new vaccine development are caused by a number of factors, such as a lack of research priorities, high costs and low revenues, regulatory hurdles in clinical trials, and uncertainty regarding market demands. To effectively counter these and other issues, we must better target federal subsidies toward stimulating innovation, and invest in rapid-vaccine discovery methods to stabilize the costs of research and development.
While government efforts could raise vaccination rates, it’s important to remember that it’s everyone’s responsibility to get vaccinated to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Carving out a few minutes for a shot is an easy step in ensuring that you and your loved ones will be around and healthy for many holidays to come.
Lindsay Clarke is vice president of Health Programs at the Alliance for Aging Research.