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Remarks on Annual Flu Vaccination Campaign

Alex M. Azar II
September 26, 2019
National Press Club

Getting a flu vaccine is the best thing you can do to protect yourself and your family this flu season. I encourage everyone to make flu vaccination a healthy habit, each and every year.

As Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, Dr. [William] Schaffner.

Good morning, everyone, and thank you for joining us here today for an important event: the annual kickoff of this year’s national flu vaccination campaign.

Each year, this is an opportunity to lay out flu vaccination coverage and results from the prior flu season, discuss the options and benefits of flu vaccination, and encourage everyone to make flu vaccination part of their routine, so I’ll touch on each of those topics today.

I’m here because the mission of HHS is to protect and enhance the health and well-being of every American, and one of the easiest ways to do that each year is for everyone over 6 months of age to get a flu vaccination.

Vaccination, and the flu, are important public health causes for the entire Trump Administration.

The President’s vision for healthcare focuses, above all, on better health, and increasing vaccination rates is a place where we have an opportunity to make a clear impact.

Make no mistake: the flu is a serious, but impactable, health challenge.

It’s a lot more than just a couple missed days at work because of fever, body aches, and just feeling lousy in general. It is a serious, potentially even deadly illness.

That’s one reason why, just last week, President Trump signed an executive order to have HHS take the lead on modernizing our flu vaccine manufacturing capabilities. More modern manufacturing will enable us to produce vaccines faster and, potentially, with even greater efficacy, for both seasonal flu and the small but real chance of a pandemic flu.

Each year, seasonal flu sickens millions of Americans, hospitalizes hundreds of thousands, and kills tens of thousands.

One of the very first press events I did as HHS Secretary, as it happens, was last January, reminding Americans to get vaccinated during that particularly severe season. This past winter’s season, 2018–2019, was not as severe, but it was record-breaking in duration, with flu activity elevated for 21 weeks.

I want to talk about flu deaths in children for a minute, because the death of a child is especially heart-breaking.

When we look at flu deaths in children reported to the CDC, we see that the youngest are most affected, with incidence highest among children younger than 6 months, followed by those aged 6 to 23 months.

Illness occurs very quickly: 65 percent of reported flu deaths in children happen within seven days after symptom onset, 38 percent of deaths occur before being admitted to the hospital. Half of the children had no preexisting medical conditions.

These are frightening numbers, and each one represents a tragedy.

But many of these deaths are preventable. Of those children 6 months and older who died from the flu between 2010 and 2016, only 22 percent were fully vaccinated against flu.

We know that flu vaccination can be life-saving in children. In fact, a 2017 study was the first of its kind to show that flu vaccination can reduce a child’s risk of dying from influenza by 50 percent or more.

Today, we have some good news to share from CDC’s vaccination coverage estimates for the 2018–2019 flu season.

Vaccination among kids across all ages, 6 months through 17 years, was almost 63 percent—an increase of nearly 5 percentage points from the previous season.

As usual, coverage was highest among the youngest kids, 6 months to 4 years, at 73 percent.

From 2010–2011 through last season, vaccination coverage in kids overall has increased more than 10 percentage points, which is wonderful.

Vaccination coverage among adults, on the other hand, has increased only about 5 percentage points over the past decade, remaining at around 45 percent, leaving more than half of adult Americans unprotected from flu each season.

We’ve also seen a plateau among adults 65 years and older, who are the most vaccinated group among adults. People 65 and older account for a majority of the flu deaths and hospitalizations we see each season, yet still, last season 32 percent of people in that age group did not get vaccinated.

A final important group to follow is healthcare workers. We estimate 81 percent of all healthcare workers got vaccinated last season, which is great, but it’s not uniform: only 68 percent of long-term care workers got vaccinated.

Many of them work with patients who are at high risk of serious flu complications, so we really need to see this number increase.

So, what can flu vaccination do for our health?

CDC is still finalizing the estimates for last season, but each season influenza vaccination prevents several million illnesses and medical visits, tens of thousands of hospitalizations, and thousands of deaths.

Over recent years, on average, flu vaccination has reduced an adult’s chances of going to the doctor with the flu by between 30 percent and 60 percent.

So why doesn’t everybody get the vaccination?

A recent national study indicated that the main reasons for not getting a flu vaccine are the following: People think flu isn’t serious or they are unlikely to get very sick from influenza. People have concerns about the safety and side effects of flu vaccines. People think flu vaccines don’t work.

I’m here today to tell you: Flu can be serious, and it kills tens of thousands every year.

But flu vaccines are safe and effective. Hundreds of millions of doses of flu vaccine have been safely given to Americans for more than 50 years. The FDA, in close coordination with CDC and NIH, works year-round to fight the flu, helping to ensure that all flu vaccines are safe and effective.

And, finally, the benefits of flu vaccination are substantial: Getting vaccinated can keep you from getting sick, it can keep you out of the hospital, and it can even save your life.

Further, it’s not just about you. Vaccination can also help protect women during and after pregnancy. A multi-year, multi-country study by the CDC showed it reduced the risk of flu hospitalization among pregnant women by 40 percent on average.

Flu vaccination during pregnancy also protects babies who are too young to be vaccinated, because these babies are born with antibodies that their mothers developed after vaccination.

Getting vaccinated yourself may also protect people around you, including those who are more vulnerable to serious flu illness, like babies and young children, older people, and people with certain chronic health conditions.

Yes, some people who get vaccinated still get sick with flu, but there is more and more data showing that vaccination makes illness less severe, helping to prevent serious outcomes.

When I first talked about vaccinations during the 2017–2018 flu season, I analogized getting vaccinated to wearing your seatbelt: It doesn’t mean you’re invincible, but it offers very substantial protection for very little effort.

This season, there are many different flu vaccine options available for consumers, including the nasal spray flu vaccine, the high-dose vaccine, an adjuvanted vaccine, and a recombinant vaccine.

You can talk to your doctor or another healthcare provider, like a pharmacist, about your options. It’s recommended that you get your flu vaccine by the end of October, and you can go to vaccinefinder.org to find where you can get vaccinated. You can get flu vaccines at a variety of places, including doctors’ offices, pharmacies, workplaces, schools, community health centers, health departments, and more.

Healthcare professionals have a role to play too: Remind your patients that flu vaccination is recommended for all patients 6 months and older. Your recommendation is crucial in motivating your patients to get vaccinated, and it’s also important that you get vaccinated to protect yourself and your patients.

I want to offer one final note: When adults are getting their yearly flu vaccine, it’s a great time to make sure they are up-to-date on any other recommended vaccines—a key way to improve health that the Trump Administration has put a special focus on.

Like the flu vaccine, all vaccines approved for use in the United States go through a rigorous evaluation process by the FDA, to ensure their safety and effectiveness.

I’ll mention one vaccine in particular that can be tied to the flu: pneumococcal disease. Pneumococcal disease can cause a range of serious illnesses and is a common and deadly complication of influenza. Each year in the United States, more than 2 million people get pneumococcal disease and over 6,000 of them die, with most of those deaths are among adults 65 years and older.

CDC recommends pneumococcal vaccination for everyone age 65 years and older and for adults with weakened immune systems, who have certain chronic health conditions, or who smoke cigarettes.

I want to close by explaining the three steps we recommend throughout flu season to stay healthy.

The first and best defense is to get a flu vaccine. Everyone 6 months and older is recommended to get an annual flu vaccination.

The second step we recommend for fighting flu, as well as other respiratory illnesses, is to take everyday preventive actions to stop the spread of germs. Stay home if you are sick, avoid people who are sick, and, as always, practice good hygiene: wash your hands often and cover coughs and sneezes.

Last but not least, take flu antiviral drugs if your doctor prescribes them. Those who are very sick and those who are at high risk of serious flu complications need to get treated quickly. Taking antivirals early if you are sick can shorten your illness, make it less severe, and prevent more serious outcomes.

Getting a flu vaccine is the best thing you can do to protect yourself and your family this flu season. I encourage everyone to make flu vaccination a healthy habit, each and every year.

Everyone has their own reasons for protecting their health with a flu vaccine, which is why, this upcoming flu season, HHS, CDC, and FDA are encouraging Americans to use the hashtag #WhyIFightFlu and to talk about why you vaccinate.

Today, I’m doing my part. I’m getting vaccinated today to protect my family—my wife and kids, my parents—and to protect everyone else who work around me every day, too.

We can’t have America’s public health leaders coming down with the flu!

Again, I urge everyone else to do the same: get your flu vaccination to protect yourself from the flu this year, and protect everyone around you and especially those you love. Thank you for your attention today.

Content created by Speechwriting and Editorial Division 
Content last reviewed on September 26, 2019