The devastating flu epidemic rampaging throughout the country is causing many to wonder if the time has come for mandatory vaccinations.
The young and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to being struck by the flu. Most people who contract the illness survive, but people with compromised immune systems often aren’t so lucky. The current outbreak has claimed the lives of 30 children so far.
Health care workers, nursing home attendants, and daycare center employees all work directly with vulnerable members of the population. There have been repeated calls to force people in these roles to be vaccinated against the flu whether they want to be or not.
There is no law, however, requiring them to take the flu shot.
“I take it myself… The reason why I do that is I continue to have the impression that it could work. But it’s one thing to say: ‘OK, on a voluntary basis, you get the vaccine despite all its weaknesses,’ and it’s another thing to say, ‘If you don’t get it, you get fired,’” French researcher Dr. Gaston De Serres said.
Dr. Serres ran a study probing into the effects of immunization on health care workers and their patients. He found that he couldn’t show a definitive correlation between patients contracting the virus and patients encountering unvaccinated hospital workers.
It may be hard to prove definitively, but most practitioners, Dr. Serres included, believe that the benefits attending vaccination far outweigh the drawbacks. Most hospitals require employees to be vaccinated against the flu as a condition of employment. Daycare centers and nursing homes urge their workers to protect themselves but don’t insist on it.
“We encourage all of our teachers and staff members to stay up to date on all of their immunizations as recommended by state health and child-care licensing officials,” said Colleen Moran, spokesman for KinderCare Education.
Heather Hunter, a spokeswoman for Brookdale Senior Living, explained: “We take all necessary precautions for the health and well-being of both our residents and associates, and we try our best to minimize the spread of an illness through education, even before flu season begins. This includes providing information on the vaccine, reminders on protocols in case of the flu and actions to take to prevent illness.”
Are they doing enough? The flu isn’t a minor illness, it can be devastating even when the patient survives. Public safety should trump personal conviction. If someone doesn’t want to receive the flu shot, perhaps they’re not fit for certain jobs.
Some doctors disagree. They argue that the number of people who die from the flu every year is relatively small, and a large percentage of those people were in precarious health, to begin with.
“The study today does not refute that vaccination could have some impact on reducing transmission from infected health care workers to patients. But it clearly shows there’s no well-conducted study that demonstrates that at this time. Our public policy should be guided as such,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy.
It may soon be out of the workers’ hands. The public is growing worried. The outbreak’s virulence is surprising, some hospitals have been completely overwhelmed. A hospital in Syracuse, New York has been turning ambulances away because they’re so swamped with flu patients.
According to a report, “Syracuse hospital ERs were on diversion for a combined 117.7 hours between Jan. 1 and Jan. 21, according to the Hospital Executive Council, a Syracuse hospital planning agency. During the same period last year, they were on diversion for 13.6 hours.
“Diversion” means that incoming emergency room patients were diverted to other hospitals.
“The increase in ER diversion is a symptom of the stress the intense flu season gripping Central New York and the entire nation is putting on the health care system” Dr. Max Berube, director of the emergency department at St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center, said.
“The number of cases we’ve been diagnosing has been on an upward trend and we don’t think we’ve reached the peak yet.”
Something has to give. Hospital can’t continue to turn people away because they’re too inundated with flu patients while also insisting that their employees have the right to choose whether or not to be vaccinated.