At 89 years of age, Lois Svoboda seems to have a pretty good idea of what she needs to do and what she does not need to worry about. And every fall Lois makes sure she gets a flu shot. Svoboda is the first to show up at Snyder's Drug Store in south Minneapolis for the first-day of the pharmacy's fall flu clinic.
She's been getting influenza vaccinations since they became available. She's absolutely convinced the shot she gets in the fall, helps keep her healthy in the winter.
"Because years ago I used to have something awful around Christmas or Thanksgiving and it was weird, so I think a flu shot is great," says Svoboda.
New research led by the Chief of Medicine at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center, Dr. Kristin Nichol, confirms what Svoboda already knows: when older people get flu shots, they dramatically decrease their chances of getting the flu and ending up in the hospital. Their chances of dying from those illnesses also plummet,according to the newly published study.
Nichol and her associates examined HMO records of more than 700,000 flu season experiences over a 10-year-period in the 1990's. They focused exclusively on people 65-years and older who lived within their communities and not in institutional settings such as nursing homes.
"What we were able to show in this group of people 65 and older who are members of these HMOs, was that influenza vaccination over a 10 year time period provides very important health benefits to older adults," Nichol says. "Influenza vaccination is associated with significant reductions in hospitalizations for pneumonia and influenza -- a 27 percent reduction and a significant percent reduction in the risk for dying, about a 48 percent reduction."
The vaccination information initially came from HealthPartners members in Minnesota and Wisconsin, but for the last four years of the study patient data was also collected from HMO's in New York City, Portland and Vancouver, Washington.
The National Vaccine Program Office and Centers for Disease Control paid for most of the study costs.
A national health goal in the United States is to vaccinate 90 percent of seniors against influenza by the year 2010, Nichol says. The rate is currently stuck at about 65 percent and Nichol hopes the clear benefits of immunization for the elderly demonstrated in her study, will lead to more senior citizens getting flu shots.
"Vaccination prevents hospitalizations, prevents deaths and saves money. So what are the implications? Well this should be another wake-up call to all of us that influenza is a bad disease and vaccination is good," she says.
The immunization program manager for the Minnesota Department of Health, Kris Ehresmann, says senior citizens in Minnesota are much more likely to get flu shots than the national average. But even at 77 percent -- that's last year's 65-and-older influenza immunization rate in Minnesota -- there's still room for improvement.
The biggest flu immunization concern confronting Minnesota does not lie within the state's population of senior citizens, Ehresmann says. She says immunization rates for some other high risk groups are below half the immunization rate of seniors.
"Definitely if you're 65 and older, keep up the good work and bring a friend with to get a flu shot, but...it's not just for people 65 and older that this vaccine will be beneficial," Ehresmann emphasizes. "We have recommendations for pregnant women, for people that have high risk conditions you know the whole age span, for children six to 59 months of age, so I would want to encourage people across the life span to remember to get a flu shot."
The 2006 flu took the lives of six Minnesota children. Eherens won't predict whether heightened concern last year will lead to more people seeking the shot this year. Officials say many providers already have the vaccine and that, unlike previous years, they do not anticipate any shortages this season.