SUSAN DENTZER: Influenza, known as the flu, afflicts millions each winter, causing symptoms like chills, fever, a dry cough, muscle aches, and fatigue. Although most people recover within several days to two weeks, the flu remains a serious public health problem, and one that is arguably getting worse.
HEALTH CARE WORKER: Let me take a real quick look here.
SUSAN DENTZER: Between 10 and 30 percent of the population gets the flu each year, as new strains of influenza viruses emerge. About 130,000 Americans are hospitalized, and as many as 30,000 die of it. An estimated 10,000 or more also die of flu complications, such as pneumonia. Although the flu hits almost everybody, particularly school-age children, it can be especially dangerous to people with chronic illnesses, like emphysema and HIV, and it can be deadly to the elderly. More than 90 percent of influenza-related deaths occur in people over 65.
HEALTH CARE WORKER: Now, you've had flu shots before?
SUSAN DENTZER: The best way to avoid becoming ill is to get a flu shot before flu season begins each fall. The vaccines must be administered annually, since they are designed to attack the strains of virus likely to circulate each flu season. Their effectiveness is underscored by a new study in this week's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers looked at health care workers who received flu vaccines and those who did not. Dr. James Wilde was the study's lead author.
DR. JAMES WILDE: We found an 88 to 89 percent reduction in influenza among the health care workers who had received the influenza vaccine.
SUSAN DENTZER: Despite the vaccine's effectiveness, only about a third of Americans at high risk of dying from the flu get an annual shot, so an editorial in the journal called for a massive national effort to encourage vaccinations by making the shots more available at places like pharmacies and schools.
JIM LEHRER: Susan Dentzer is now with Phil Ponce.
PHIL PONCE: Susan, first of all, a point of basic information, the flu is a term people throw around pretty freely. What exactly is the flu?
SUSAN DENTZER: The flu, Phil, is a viral infection that's caused by the influenza virus, which comes in three forms, known as Types A, B and C. The ones we really care about are Type A and B. Those tend to cause the large disease outbreaks, the epidemics that we've become familiar with. As we said in the piece, the symptoms are familiar. You start off, you tend to start off with a dry cough, a headache. That evolves quickly to fever and chill - chills, rather, leading to fever. Then you get something a couple days later that seems pretty much like a cold, nasal congestion, coughing again. You tend to get a lot of muscle weakness, muscle fatigue, and you can feel that for as much as a week to two weeks after the rest of your symptoms disappear.
PHIL PONCE: And how do you know you don't have a bad cold as opposed to the flu?
SUSAN DENTZER: Well, you might not really know. But the key signs are going to be, first of all, how it starts off with a headache and the dry cough. That's usually a giveaway. A cold doesn't necessarily start that way. And your fever is going to be a tip-off as well, because a cold fever isn't going to hang around the way a flu fever will hang around you for a couple of days.
PHIL PONCE: Susan, this study in the Journal of the American Medical Association dealt with young health professionals and how effective the vaccine was in that group. But across the board, how effective are these flu vaccines?
SUSAN DENTZER: There's a broad range of fact in this. For some individuals, that is to say sickly, bed-bound older persons, it may reduce the incidence as little as 30 percent, the degree of effectiveness is much lower than in the case of the health care professionals, where, as we said, it's almost 90 percent. But it's important to note what we're talking about here. That's preventing the flu. It is very clear that in terms of keeping you out of the hospital and preventing the very high-risk kind of things that can accompany flu, secondary infections, such as pneumonia, and preventing you from dying, the flu vaccine is generally much more effective. And there the effectiveness rates, that is to say eliminating that possibility is upwards of 70 percent for many, many more individuals.
PHIL PONCE: So is it fair to say a flu vaccine can't hurt you but it might help you?
SUSAN DENTZER: It can't hurt you, might help you, and it almost certainly is going to increase the odds that your life will be saved, you will not die of the flu over the secondary infection related to the flu.
PHIL PONCE: Susan, without making the segment too personal, we had a staff meeting yesterday and Jim asked for a show of hands for a show of people who had gotten a flu vaccine. And every person in the room, about 12 of us, raised our hands and he asked how many have gotten the flu, about six of us raised our hands. Explain that.
SUSAN DENTZER: Well, for one thing, you all may not have gotten the flu, you may have gotten something else, a very bad cold, another kind of a virus, known as RSV, which can mimic a lot of the symptoms that a lot of people confuse with the flu.
PHIL PONCE: RSV, what does that stand for?
SUSAN DENTZER: Respiratory Syncytial Virus, which is another very widespread virus, particularly among children.
PHIL PONCE: So when I went to the doctor and he said I had an acute viral infection, what did that mean? Did that mean I had the flu, even though I got a flu vaccine?
SUSAN DENTZER: It meant that you had a virus that caused a lot of havoc in your body and that the doctor did not go on to make sure that that was an influenza virus. So, it's quite likely that you had some other kind of virus. You may, indeed, have gotten the flu, you can't rule that out. But it's quite likely and particularly, for example, last year when the flu virus - the flu vaccine was made, the actual variant of the virus that ended up causing most of the flu outbreak in the United States last year turned out not to have been captured in the vaccine. That did not appear to have happened this year but that does happen from year to year. So it may be that you get a vaccine and it wasn't necessarily targeted to the variant of the virus that caused the flu in that given year.
PHIL PONCE: So a flu vaccine can care vary in effectiveness from year to year because every year flu viruses can mutate and come up with new variations that the existing vaccines weren't manufactured to address?
SUSAN DENTZER: That's right. And that's why there is in place a global surveillance network to find out as early as possible what variants are likely to be prevalent in the coming flu season.
PHIL PONCE: Susan, across the general population, how many people get flu vaccines?
SUSAN DENTZER: In the United States about 75 million people. So, it's a little bit more than a third of the population. The concern now, as we said in the piece, is that many of the people who are at high risk for getting the flu and having serious complications or dying of it are not getting it. 65 percent of the elderly fortunately are now getting the flu vaccine. That's a dramatic increase from recent years. And hopefully it will continue to go upward. But if you look at the next younger group of people, say people age 50 to 64, many of whom who are starting to have chronic diseases like diabetes and other things that would be indications of a need to get flu vaccine, that group of people is not getting the flu vaccine to the degree it should, as is the case with many young children. Very young children should probably get the flu vaccine because they can have worse cases than slightly older children and others who may have compromised immune systems, such as with HIV and so on. So there's a large group of people who need to get the virus - who need to get the vaccine who are not getting it.
PHIL PONCE: Well, Susan, why is it if the evidence show it is can help you, why is it more people are not getting the flu vaccine?
SUSAN DENTZER: Some people are afraid. Some people are afraid that they're going to get the flu from the flu vaccine. Some people think that they're going to get very bad serious side effects, whereas we know that probably the worst side effect you're going to get is a sore arm, sore at the site of the vaccination spot, for one to two days. And I think -
PHIL PONCE: But you can't actually get the flu from getting a flu vaccine? That's a myth.
SUSAN DENTZER: You cannot get the flu. Many people apparently retain memories of older generations of flu vaccines that were not so pure and you could get some worse side effects than is the case now but also people just don't understand how much their risk could be reduced and the risk in some cases of very serious illness and death.
PHIL PONCE: And real quickly, things that are in the pipeline, drugs or vaccines that maybe are improvements?
SUSAN DENTZER: Yes. Happily enough to say, there is a possibility in the next couple of years there will be on the market something known as flu mist vaccine, which actually is a vaccine that is made of live -- attenuated live viruses. It sounds scary to say, but, in fact, what this is, is viruses that, in effect, could be more effective in terms of a vaccine of preventing you from getting the flu. Also, these would be administered through a nasal spray. So, in effect, it would mimic getting the real flu. You'd get a live virus, you'd get it through your nose, which is how you tend to get flu virus in the first place, and it's thought that this will be more effective in preventing flu. We'll see if it comes on the market and if it has in fact that effect.
PHIL PONCE: Did you get a flu shot?
SUSAN DENTZER: Of course.
PHIL PONCE: Did you get the flu?
SUSAN DENTZER: No.
PHIL PONCE: Lucky, Susan. Thank you.
SUSAN DENTZER: Thanks, Phil.