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How Safe is the Flu Vaccine?

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Dear Dr. Levister: How safe is the flu vaccine? My elderly parents refuse to get the vaccination. V.R.

Dear V.R.: Over the last 50 years, seasonal flu vaccines have had very good safety track records. Over the years, hundreds of millions of Americans have received seasonal flu vaccines. Millions of people have also safely received the 2009 H1N1 flu vaccine. The most common side effects following flu vaccinations are mild. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) closely monitor for any signs that flu vaccines are causing unexpected adverse events and are working with state and local health officials to investigate any unusual events.

Nationwide vaccination rates increased slightly from 81.7% during the 2006-2007 influenza season to 82.8% during the 2008-2009 season. The increase was higher for blacks (from 75.4% to 77.8%) when compared with whites (from 82.6% to 83.5%). Yet, these rates were less than the 90% target for high-quality care, and blacks remained less likely to receive vaccination compared with whites.

Blacks were also more likely than whites to refuse the flu vaccination (12.88% vs. 8.37% during 2008-2009 flu seasons). The researchers attributed this to their perceptions and beliefs about influenza vaccines. Enhancing the communication between medical providers and black residents or providing education programs may change black residents’ knowledge regarding safety and effectiveness of flu vaccination, and increase their acceptance of flu vaccines.

The Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) is one of two key systems used to monitor the safety of vaccines, including the influenza vaccines administered during 2011-2012. VAERS is a national program co-managed by CDC and FDA. It serves as an “early warning” system for potential vaccine safety concerns. VAERS receives about 30,000 reports annually of adverse events following immunizations from a variety of sources (such as patients, family members, health care providers, and vaccine manufacturers). Generally, VAERS cannot determine if a vaccine caused an adverse event, but can provide a signal for further investigation.

VAERS will be used during the 2011-2012 flu season to help detect any rare adverse events that need further study.

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