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Health workers said major sources of flu in old-age homes

October 9, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Doctors and nurses often fail to get their annual flu shots and may be a major source of influenza infections that can be lethal to elderly patients in nursing homes, researchers report.

``The very people who are charged with protecting the elderly from the flu may bring the virus into nursing homes and expose residents to this disease and its life-threatening complications,″ Dr. Gregory Poland of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., said Wednesday at a news conference.

He said surveys show that only about 30 percent of doctors, nurses and attendants get flu shots each year and that about 25 percent of this group develop a flu infection that can easily spread to patients.

Adding to the problem, said Poland, is the fact only about half of people over age 65 get flu shots and an even smaller percentage have had the vaccine that protects against pneumonia infections.

This results, said Poland, in thousands of preventable deaths from flu and pneumonia.

``Physicians, nurses and health-care workers who have not received flu vaccine are regularly putting the patients under their care at risk,″ he said.

Poland said a British study of 1,059 residents at 12 different facilities for long-term care found the death rate among patients dropped from 17 percent to 10 percent when health-care workers were required to receive annual flu shots.

``Just immunizing the health-care workers gives significant protection for these patients,″ he said.

Poland said flu shots give a high level of protection against infection from the virus. Additionally, he said, people protected by the vaccine are much less likely to spread the virus to others.

The doctor emphasized that the flu vaccine is made from killed virus, which means the shots cannot cause the infection.

People over 65, particularly those already in poor health, are very susceptible to flu and its potentially lethal side-effect, pneumonia. Poland said many elderly people who get flu go on to develop pneumonia, and about 10 percent of those patients die.

Dr. Jay Butler of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta cited an alarming rise in strains of pneumonia-causing bacterium that do not respond to antibiotic treatment.

Butler said about 20 percent of the pneumococcus strains now found in elderly patients do not respond to penicillin, an antibiotic that has long been the mainstay against the infection. Ten percent of the bacteria are now unresponsive to even advanced types of antibiotics, he said.

This makes it even more important, said Butler, that people over age 65 receive not only the flu vaccine but also shots that protect against most of the types of pneumococcus.

``As many as 22 million elderly have never been immunized against pneumococcal disease,″ he said.

The combination of flu and pneumonia was the sixth leading cause of death among Americans last year, claiming about 40,000 lives. About 500,000 cases of influenza required hospitalization, said Poland.

Inoculation against flu and pneumonia can reduce the risk of death from these infections by about 80 percent, Poland said.

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