Originally created 03/10/99

Flu shot importance touted



Still a little hoarse from a weeklong bout with the flu, Jeanne Haile doesn't want to go through that again.

"I thought I was going to die. I really did. Oh, I was miserable," said the certified neonatal nurse at Medical College of Georgia Hospital and Clinics. Still, she's not going to promise she'll get the flu shot next fall.

"I'm probably not going to dismiss it as quick as I once did," said Mrs. Haile, 35. "(But) I like being on the other side of the needle."

A ground-breaking study published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association by an MCG colleague adds strong evidence for vaccinating health care workers like Mrs. Haile against the flu. In a three-year study of 264 doctors and nurses, pediatric emergency medicine and infectious disease specialist James Wilde and others found that 88 percent of those who got vaccinated did not get sick, while nearly 14 percent of those who didn't get vaccinated got the flu.

Worse, those providers who do get sick were more likely to show up at work with a fever, possibly spreading infections to patients, Dr. Wilde said.

The study at two Baltimore hospitals is the first to follow health care workers over three consecutive flu seasons and document the effectiveness of the flu shot in that group, Dr. Wilde said. The study also hits on an apparent paradox that health care workers may be reluctant to get the flu shot, with previous studies showing only 10 percent to 50 percent get the shot each year, Dr. Wilde said.

"It's been very difficult to convince medical professionals to get influenza vaccines," Dr. Wilde said, in part because of the lack of strong data in the past.

"Influenza is a major killer," Dr. Wilde said, particularly for those over age 65 and those who already have chronic health problems. Those patients are targeted by vaccination efforts, Dr. Wilde said, as well as those who live with them or care for them.

"Another big category where it would make sense to get coverage is health care professionals because we take care of high-risk patients all the time," Dr. Wilde. "If we get the influenza and we go to work with the influenza, we could spread that to our patients."

But the study idea met surprising resistance initially from the residents and nurses who harbored an irrational fear of catching the flu from it or other side effects, perhaps a leftover from the Swine Flu epidemic of 1976 whose vaccine led to increased rates of a chronic and sometimes fatal neurological condition, Dr. Wilde said.

"The problem here is even medical professionals are afraid of the influenza vaccine, and there is no need to be," Dr. Wilde said. "And given that medical professionals are afraid of it, it's not surprising to hear that the general public is also."

It's the same thing at the Richmond County Health Department, which vaccinates a lot of the public, but sometimes has trouble persuading its staff, said nursing director Jane Oglesby.

"You try to educate them on the vaccine, that it's a killed virus (in the vaccine) so there's no way it can give you the flu," she said.

The study also showed that those vaccinated had an average half-day fewer absences from work a year, Dr. Wilde said.

"That doesn't sound like a big number. But if you look at a hospital with a thousand employees, a half-day per person adds up pretty quickly," Dr. Wilde said. And if the workers aren't passing it on to patients, there is less sickness and less cost.

In an accompanying editorial, W. Paul Glezen of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston said there is clear need for new strategies to get more people vaccinated.

"With the even larger task of preparing for the next influenza pandemic, it is important to identify and use all available methods for preventing complications from influenza," Dr. Glezen wrote.

Because she "never gets sick," Mrs. Haile said she never even considered getting the vaccine. Now that she has met influenza, "I never want to go through that again."

Preventing the flu

According to a study published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Medical College of Georgia researcher Dr. James Wilde, the flu vaccine was effective during three seasons in preventing health care workers from getting the flu.

Of 264 people who participated in the random double-blind study, the vaccine was 88 percent effective in preventing the flu.

About 14 percent of those who did not get the vaccine got sick. Those vaccinated averaged a half-day fewer work absences a year.

Tom Corwin covers science and medicine for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at (706) 823-3213 or tomc@augustachronicle.com.