As the Food and Drug Administration contemplates booster shots and a myriad of other regulatory issues related to the COVID-19 vaccine, it is essential to reiterate the importance of a vaccine that is available and recommended for every age group at no cost to the patient — the influenza vaccine. Throughout history, influenza has been responsible for far more mortality than any other individual ailment. And in the 2018-2019 flu season, the year before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that influenza may have been responsible for as many as 53,000 deaths in the United States.
Today, flu immunization rates lag and are far below the Department of Health and Human Services’ Healthy People 2030 goals of 70 percent immunization rate for the entire U.S. population. For example, in 2019-2020, only half of individuals 18 years and older received a flu vaccine, and that was a slight increase compared to the previous year.
The primary reasons for this shortcoming are twofold.
First, there is an underlying hesitancy to immunizations among the U.S. population. The resistance to vaccination is not a new phenomenon or exclusively the result of politicizing the COVID-19 vaccine — it’s an ingrained and misconstrued thought process about the safety and efficacy of vaccines in general that has been festering over many decades. Addressing this matter requires health care professionals, the most trusted advisers for most individuals, to embrace a far more active role in educating their patients about the risk and benefits explicitly associated with the flu vaccine and immunizations in general.
Second, there are unwarranted questions about the efficacy of the flu vaccines. Not only does the data clearly show that immunization reduces the burden of illness, but the scientific community is also continually improving the efficacy of vaccines.
About a decade ago, high-dose quadrivalent and adjuvanted flu vaccines with higher antigenicity were introduced in the marketplace. The newer vaccines gave individuals a stronger immune response, and therefore better protection against flu. These vaccines are only recommended and approved for individuals ages 65 and older. According to the CDC, all flu vaccines for the 2021-2022 season will be quadrivalent. The cell and egg-based or recombinant formulations provide broader coverage than the traditional trivalent influenza vaccines used in previous years.
With the success of the mRNA technology platform utilized to develop the COVID-19 vaccines, there is also a promise that a more potent, easier to manufacture and less expensive vaccine for influenza will be created. More efficacious vaccines for flu address one of the excuses people commonly provide when turning down a flu vaccine.
Although measures taken for COVID-19 protections may have suppressed the most recent flu season in the United States, the influenza virus remains one the single deadliest infections today. Hence, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends the flu vaccine for anyone above the age of 6 months. It is also why most private and public insurance plans cover the flu vaccine at no cost to the patient.
With the never-ending debate about the COVID-19 pandemic, it is crucial not to lose sight of influenza. We ought to take this opportunity to emphasize the importance of all vaccines and encourage a new era of research that potentially provides us with far more efficacious vaccines.
Robert Popovian, Pharm.D., M.S., is chief science policy officer at Global Healthy Living Foundation and a senior health policy fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute.
Wayne Winegarden, Ph.D., is a senior fellow and director of the Center for Medical Economics and Innovation at the Pacific Research Institute.