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It’s Been a Bad Flu Season; Vaccine Levels Among Old Probably Under 50%

March 16, 1990

ATLANTA (AP) _ The 1989-90 flu season could turn out to be the worst in five years, the national Centers for Disease Control says.

And the dominant strain is one that hits especially hard against older people, who probably are not vaccinated, according to a CDC report Thursday.

The CDC said the winter flu season has been marked by a flu type especially troublesome for older people: the type researchers know as A-H3N2.

In the average influenza season, the flu kills about 20,000 Americans. But in 1984-85, the last year in which A-H3N2 was so predominant, about 57,000 people died.

″This year looks to me like the worst year since ’84-85,″ said Dr. Walter Gunn, a CDC flu specialist.

The U.S. flu season, which peaked in late January and early February, featured almost exclusively a Type A-H3N2 flu strain dubbed the ″Shanghai flu″ - one of three components in the current flu vaccine, recommended for people older than 65 or patients with ailments such as diabetes or kidney disease.

The recommended flu vaccine is up to 75 percent effective in preventing complications and death from flu in older people, the CDC said in its weekly report.

But a survey of Medicare beneficiaries found that only 43 percent had received flu vaccinations for the 1988-89 winter flu season, the CDC reported Thursday. Nine out of 10 who weren’t vaccinated fell into the older-or-ill group for whom shots are recommended.

″We still have quite a ways to go″ in immunizing Americans against influenza, said the CDC’s Dr. Mary Ann Sprauer.

The most commonly cited reason for not being vaccinated: 54 percent ″considered themselves healthy and not in need of vaccination,″ the Atlanta-based agency reported.

Thirty percent cited concerns about side effects from the vaccine, and 30 percent were concerned about illness associated with the shots.

The CDC stressed that the Medicare survey is not a representative national sample and may not reflect the nation’s older population.

But the findings among Medicare participants were somewhat more encouraging than previous surveys showing the vaccination rate among people over 65 to be 23 to 32 percent.

″We took a little heart in the fact that it seemed to be a little higher,″ Sprauer said. ″But the national goal, for the nation in 1990, was 60 percent (among those recommended for the vaccine). We’d like to see it up there around 60 or 70 percent, if not higher.″

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