A panel of experts that advises the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on vaccine issues, voted this week to recommend that all persons aged 6 months and over receive annual influenza vaccinations.

The effect of the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommendation is to expand the proportion of people recommended to have flu shots from the current 85 per cent of the population (the higher risk groups) to virtually 100 per cent. Exceptions include babies under 6 months old and people with egg allergies (the vaccine is cultured in eggs) and other unusual conditions.

The panel voted 11 to 0 with one abstention, on Wednesday in Atlanta. According to a report in the Washington Post, when the vote was cast, there was a short round of applause in the public meeting room, reflecting the fact some public health experts and doctors have been pushing for everyone to be included the annual flu shot recommendation for more than 10 years.

The CDC usually follows the advice of its advisory panels, so the recommendation is likely to be adopted and then it will be communicated to all doctors and hospital throughout the US. A statement on the CDC website said that the expanded recommendation is to take effect in the 2010 – 2011 flu season and that it seeks to:

“Remove barriers to influenza immunization and signals the importance of preventing influenza across the entire population.”

A CDC flu specialist, Dr. Anthony Fiore, told the Washington Post that:

“Now no one should say ‘Should I or shouldn’t I?'”

The ACIP meeting focused on the value of protecting people aged 19 to 49 (the group not included in the current recommendation). This group was hit hard by the 2009 H1N1 pandemic virus, which experts predict is likely to continue circulating in the next flu season and even after that.

Another reason given for moving to universal vaccination, apart from the simple practicality of giving out an all inclusive message, is that many people currently advised to have the flu shot are not aware that they are at higher risk and should have the vaccine.

Also, new data gathered during the 2009 H1N1 shows that some people who are currently not covered by a specific recommendation to receive an annual flu shot may also be at higher risk of flu-related complications. These groups include people who are obese, certain racial/ethnic minorities and women who have just had babies.

The panel recognized that more doses will be needed to cover the coming season’s requirement, but based on current projections, the CDC statement said that:

“More licensed types and brands of seasonal influenza vaccines will be available in the 2010-11 influenza season than has ever been available before.”

CDC records from past years show that less than half the number of people recommended for vaccination actually get their flu shot.

The CDC stressed that although the annual flu vaccine is a safe and preventive health action that benefits everyone, we must not forget that some groups are still at higher risk of flu complications. These include people aged 65 and over, children under 6 months, pregnant women, and anyone with certain chronic medical conditions.

The main focus of a vaccination campaign, even if it is universal, should be to ensure these groups, and the people they come into close contact with, get their annual shots, said the CDC.

Sources: CDC, Washington Post.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD