6 things to know about 2016 flu vaccines — efficacy, supply and more

The new flu season will be upon us soon — a few local flu outbreaks have already occurred in the U.S. — and public health officials are urging everyone over 6 months old to get vaccinated before Oct. 31.

Here are six things to know about this year's flu season and flu vaccine recommendations, from a panel including Tom Frieden, MD, director of the CDC; Wilbur Chen, MD, chief of the adult clinical studies section of the Center for Vaccine Development; William Schaffner, MD, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases; and Patricia Whitley-Williams, MD, chief of the division of pediatric allergy, immunology and infectious diseases at Rutgers Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, N.J.

1. Flu vaccine rates last year were low — only 45.6 percent of people older than 6 months were vaccinated last year, down 1.5 percentage points from the year prior. Dr. Frieden posited the decline was due to the vaccine being less effective than in years past. "Last year we were very upfront, saying the [vaccine] match wasn't ideal" in matching the flu strain circulating, he said.

2. If the flu vaccination rate were to rise just 5 percent this year, it could prevent 800,000 illnesses and roughly 10,000 hospitalizations, the officials said.

3. As for the efficacy of this year's vaccine, Dr. Frieden said it's "way too early" to tell if the vaccine will cover this season's predominant strains, as flu is "unpredictable." However, "we anticipate it will be a good match," he said, and it matches the strains that circulated at the end of the last flu season.

4. This year, there are two new types of flu vaccines available to the public. One version is made with virus grown in cell culture, which is different from the more traditional egg-based method. That vaccine is approved for use in people 4 years old and older. The other version is made specifically for people 65 years old and older.

5. As the CDC said previously, the U.S. has advised against use of the nasal spray version of the flu vaccine, known as the live attenuated influenza vaccine or LAIV. Studies have called the nasal spray's efficacy into question. Last year, roughly a third of children who got a flu shot did so with the nasal spray. "We do hope to get an effective nasal spray back on the market as soon as possible," Dr. Frieden said, but officials stressed injectable flu vaccines are safe and effective in children. Not having the spray is "not [a] reason to pass on getting a child immunized," said Dr. Whitley-Williams.

6. Even though some physicians were worried the lack of nasal spray vaccine would cause a flu vaccine shortage, officials do not anticipate that being a problem this year. Already, 93 million doses of injectable vaccines have been delivered to providers, and they estimate that up to 168 million doses will be available this flu season.

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