Officials: Immunization rates ‘woefully low’

With public health officials calling the number of people receiving crucial immunizations woefully low, physicians and pharmacists across North America are working to get more people vaccinated.

“Because many vaccine-preventable diseases are not common in the United States, often people do not see the devastation it can cause until there is an outbreak,” said Karen Staniforth, group VP pharmacy initiatives and clinical services at Rite Aid. “It is important that we continue to protect our communities with vaccines because outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases can and do still occur in this country.”

According to researchers, the country’s declining vaccination rates are having the greatest impact on adults. A study published earlier this year in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine found that an average of 30,000 people in the United States die every year from vaccine-preventable diseases — mostly influenza — with more than 95% of these fatalities occurring in adults.

Researchers estimated that only 62% of people ages 65 years and older receive a pneumococcal vaccine, and just 65% get an influenza vaccine. Only 16% of those older than 60 years receive a herpes zoster vaccine, and just 20% of high-risk adults between 19 years and 64 years get a pneumococcal vaccine.

Since the start of the year, the impact of not enough people getting vaccinated has become front-page news in some areas of the country where sharp spikes in the number of cases of measles and pertussis are being reported. Pharmacies across the country have responded to these outbreaks by expanding the number of stores offering vaccines for these diseases and extending the hours during which they administer the immunizations.

Walgreens divisional VP of immunizations Catherine MacPherson said that giving patients greater access and availability has led to nearly a third of the vaccinations in its pharmacies being administered in the evening, on weekends and on holidays.

“We’ve demonstrated through our flu shot program and other immunization services the ability to have an impact on immunization rates as a key driver to helping improve population health in the communities we serve,” she said.

Immunizers say the key to increasing vaccination rates is driving home the message that vaccines provide a safe and inexpensive way to help patients stay healthy.

“There is a lot of confusion and misinformation about vaccinations in the marketplace,” CVS Caremark VP of pharmacy affairs Papatya Tankut said. “It is important that healthcare providers and practitioners, as well as such agencies as the CDC, continue to communicate publicly with a consistent message about the importance and safety of getting vaccinated.”

Advocates of pharmacist-administered vaccinations say that as the country’s healthcare system continues to evolve, pharmacists’ ability to provide vaccinations fits well with their expanding role in managing patients’ health.

“There is a growing recognition in the healthcare community that pharmacists have a valuable role to play in helping the nation achieve its goals in this area,” American Pharmacists Association chief strategy officer Mitchel Rothholz said. “As the healthcare system moves more toward a team-based model, pharmacist-administered vaccines make more sense.”

While much of the resistance to pharmacists administering a wide range of vaccines has eroded, some in the medical community continue to call for restrictions. In Pennsylvania, which last year lagged behind the national median for immunizations of school-age children, the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Pennsylvania Medical Society and the Pennsylvania Academy of Family Physicians have criticized a recent legislative proposal to lower the age at which pharmacists can provide immunizations. The groups say that doctors are best qualified to deal with a negative drug reaction, should one occur.

Proponents of expanding the scope of pharmacist-administered vaccines, however, say they are confident that such opposition will disappear as more evidence emerges about the impact pharmacists can have on immunization rates and public health.

“The perception of the role of pharmacists has improved over the past several years,” Rothholz said. “As there is more documentation of what pharmacists can do in this area, any remaining barriers to pharmacies providing vaccinations will disappear.”

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