As many as 49,000 people die from the flu annually, depending on the season, and children and the elderly are the most vulnerable. Among the 138 children who died from the flu during the 2012-2013 season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 90 percent were not vaccinated. In addition, more than 200,000 people are hospitalized, with the most vulnerable being infants, young children, older adults, and people of all ages who have underlying conditions such as heart or lung disease. But remember, it is not only the youngest, oldest, or sickest who die: Every year, flu kills people who were otherwise healthy.
Furthermore, flu has a significant economic impact. Each year, the direct medical cost of flu infection in the U.S. is estimated to be $10 billion due to increased doctors’ visits, hospitalizations, and premature deaths. [Molinari NA, et al. Vaccine 2007; 25:5086-5096] Sick children can also cause parents to lose time from work.
Annual vaccination remains the best way to protect the people you love from the flu. Disease prevention is key to public health. It is always better to prevent a disease than to treat it. Vaccines can protect both the people who receive them and those with whom they come in contact.
In 2012, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of two 4-strain flu vaccines, which offer broader protection against the seasonal flu. Dr. Karen Midthun, Director of FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research has said, ‘illness caused by influenza B virus affects children, particularly young and school-aged, more than any other population. A vaccine containing the four virus strains most likely to spread and cause illness during the influenza season offers an additional option to aid in influenza prevention efforts.’
It is critical that the American people are able to take advantage of the new vaccines to protect public health. As such, the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) must be updated to cover the new 4-strain flu vaccines.
Through the VICP, which was created more than a quarter-century ago, Congress addressed concerns about vaccine safety and litigation that threatened to drive vaccine manufacturers out of the market. The principle behind the VICP is that while there is a public interest in making sure that immunization rates are high, there are rare, but sometimes serious, risks associated with immunizations. Therefore, people who are injured from vaccines should be compensated quickly and predictably.
The VICP is a “no-fault” compensation program where awards are provided to those determined to be injured by a vaccine included in the VICP. This program is funded by an excise tax on covered vaccines. This is the way it has been done since the program was created, and the program has been an overwhelming success. However, the excise tax is currently limited to 3-strain flu vaccines and cannot be levied on the new 4-strain flu vaccines.
Representatives Richard Neal (D-MA) and Jim Gerlach (R-PA) have introduced legislation (H.R. 475) which would ensure these new vaccines are covered by the VICP. This legislation will be considered by the Congress next week, and we want to urge policymakers to pass it in order to prepare for the upcoming flu season and protect public health.
Litjen Tan, MS, PhD, is the Chief Strategy Officer with the Immunization Action Coalition.
The Immunization Action Coalition (IAC) works throughout the year to increase immunization rates and prevent disease by creating and distributing educational materials for health professionals and the public that enhance the delivery of safe and effective immunization services. The Coalition also facilitates communication about the safety, efficacy, and use of vaccines within the broad immunization community of patients, parents, health care organizations, and government health agencies.