Flu vaccine success should spill over

May 6, 2010 by  

More kids and adults received the regular flu vaccine this flu season than last year, the CDC reported this week. Forty percent of the population rolled up their sleeves for a shot in the arm late in 2009 and early this year. During the previous flu season, only 33 percent of country was vaccinated.

Twitter updates and Facebook ads can be blamed for the success. The government health behemoth added colorful graphics and enticing (especially to the media) sound bites about the flu vaccine to its Web site. Flu coverage was rampant this year. The H1N1 outbreak certainly paved the way—but the CDC’s aggressive marketing campaign on flu vaccines must have helped.

Seasonal flu vaccines are irrefutably important. Let’s not argue that. It is the lack of love shared on other, equally important vaccines that gives one pause.

Parents rely on the advice of their primary care physician to keep track of which vaccines their newborn baby or teenage daughter or son needs to receive. Here I’m thinking of the rotavirus and the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines. If a doctor does not persuade the mother or father during a 15-minute-or-less visit then the bets are off.  Wouldn’t it be nice if the public were inundated with information about other vaccines that stop other potentially life-threatening infections?

The underlying message of the flu vaccine campaign—that you put yourself and others at high risk by not getting a shot—should be applied to other vaccine opportunities. HPV and rotavirus infections aren’t small change, either.
All sexually active men and women have a fifty-fifty chance of becoming infected with HPV during their lifetimes. Rotavirus is still the number one cause of severe diarrhea, which can lead to much graver health conditions, among U.S. children.

I remember visiting my gynecologist at 18, the ideal age to receive a three-dose injection of the HPV vaccine. My doctor was, and is, off-the-charts smart. She whizzed through the regular visit and gave me a few HPV brochures at the end. With a serious gaze, she said, “You really should consider getting this vaccine.” I dutifully took the pamphlet, carefully stored it away under my health file at home, and promptly forgot about it.

When every newspaper, radio and television story I turned to this past winter lauded the benefits of the flu vaccine, I broke down and got one. Since then I’ve wised up to the fact that vaccines should be as common as taking Advil for a headache. Before H1N1 stormed the continent, I thought of vaccines as only needed for overseas travel or dire situations. Doctors cannot force patients to get any shots, of course. That’s where the marketing campaigns of the CDC—and, heck, the vaccine manufacturers, too—come into play.

Vaccines play an important role in public health. When the catch words in health policy debate today are “prevention” and “universal,” now seems the best time to roll out a bells-and-whistles campaign that lets everyone know: vaccines aren’t just for the flu season.

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