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Expert calls for health workers to get flu shots

St. Petersburg Times
By LISA GREENE, Times Staff Writer
The Mayo Clinic Vaccine Research Group's director says those in the health
industry should be required to get vaccinations.

TAMPA - Influenza kills about 36,000 Americans each year. Some people catch it in hospitals and from doctors, nurses and other staffers.

But nearly two-thirds of health care workers don't get flu shots.

Requiring shots will save lives, and it's the best way to lower hospital influenza infection rates, one of the nation's top flu experts said Monday.

"It is a chance for us to demonstrate that we can and will do the right thing for our patients,'' said Dr. Greg Poland, speaking to the national conference of infection control workers.

Poland directs the Mayo Clinic Vaccine Research Group and belongs to the advisory committee on vaccines for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Several studies have shown that health care workers spread the flu to patients and that hospitals can dramatically lower their death rates by vaccinating workers.

Despite their medical knowledge, health workers don't get flu shots for the same reasons that others don't.

They don't know that they're risking patients' health. They don't know that they're at risk. They're afraid of needles. They think, mistakenly, that they can get the flu from a flu shot, which contains only dead virus.

"One of the things I hear is, 'I never get the flu,' " Poland said. "Yes, you do.''

Blood test studies suggest that half of health care workers who get the flu don't know that they have it and don't show symptoms. Even without symptoms, they can spread it to patients.

Health workers also have the same bad health habits as other Americans, with about 70 percent going to work when they're sick.

The difference: When health care workers work sick, people can die.

Because they're already sick, hospital patients are especially vulnerable to the worst complications of the flu, which is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.

In 1998, a flu outbreak in a hospital neonatal unit sickened 54 babies and killed one. Only 15 percent of the workers had gotten flu vaccines.

Imagine, Poland said, that "your baby dies of an infection preventable with a $15 vaccine.''

In another hospital, 25 patients in a bone marrow transplant unit got the flu, and two died. Only 12 percent of unit workers had gotten flu shots.

That case, Poland said, shows why only talking about the risks isn't enough. The next year, 42 percent of the workers still didn't get shots.

"I want to believe and you want to believe that education works,'' he said. "It does not, when it comes to this topic.''

Poland has been a strong advocate for mandatory flu shots. The idea appeared to be gathering steam. Seven states require shots for health workers. The Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, the group that Poland spoke to Monday, has endorsed it, as have other infectious disease groups.

Increasing fears about a worldwide flu epidemic also add momentum. U.S. pandemic plans call for health care workers to be vaccinated first so they can care for the sick.

"We won't know how to do it'' if workers aren't getting shots now, Poland said.

Although Poland and other advocates call the shots mandatory, workers would be able to decline getting a shot after signing a document stating why they declined.