By Steven Reinberg
WEDNESDAY, Sept. 21 (HealthDay News) -- With plenty of influenza vaccine available, U.S. health officials urged Americans Wednesday to get a flu shot.
Last year, some 130.9 million Americans -- about 43 percent of the population -- got a shot, which represents an increase over past years. The greatest increase was among children 6 months to 17 years old. But, more adults are getting vaccinated, too, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Eight million more Americans got the flu shot last year than the year before, and that's the most people who have ever been vaccinated against flu in this country," CDC Director Dr. Thomas R. Frieden said during a Wednesday morning press conference.
About 51 percent of American children were vaccinated last year -- a 7 percent increase from the year before and 22 percent increase from the year before that, Frieden said. However, the number of young adults with conditions such as asthma who get flu shots is still too low, he said.
One reason for the increase in vaccinations appears to be a response to the emergence of the H1N1 flu two years ago, Frieden said. But it's important to get vaccinated this year, he added.
"There are too many illnesses and deaths from influenza each year," Frieden said. "Everyone over 6 months should get a flu shot this year and every year."
Right now, more than 85 million doses of flu vaccine are available in doctors' offices, public health clinics, pharmacies and retail stores, among other sites. More doses will be available than ever before. And you don't have to go to your doctor to get a shot because pharmacists in all 50 states can administer them.
Also, there are four ways to get vaccinated: a nasal spray; the traditional injection vaccine; a high-dose injection for people 65 and older; and a new vaccine injected in the forearm using a smaller needle.
"It looks like we are going to have a vaccine that's very well matched to the circulating strains," Frieden said.
The CDC also recommends a three-step approach to protect yourself and family from the flu. First, get a flu shot. Second, use everyday preventive measures, such as hand washing and covering your mouth when you cough.
Finally, if you do get the flu, use antiviral drugs such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu) or zanamivir (Relenza) to help reduce the risk of complications.
Speaking at the press conference, Dr. Richard H. Beigi, assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, stressed the importance of pregnant women getting a flu shot.
"The influenza vaccine during pregnancy is safe for both mothers and for babies," said Beigi, who's also a spokesman for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. "Pregnant women suffer more serious morbidity and occasional mortality from influenza. This was validated during the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic and last year as well," he added.
Pregnant women who get the flu are also more likely to deliver early and have underweight babies, Beigi said.
"Giving mom an influenza vaccination during pregnancy not only protects the mother, but also protects the newborn infant for the first six months of life. This is important because newborns less than six months of age are not eligible to receive the influenza vaccine, but are at higher risk for morbidity and occasional mortality," he said.
Frieden also recommended that seniors get a pneumococcal vaccination to protect them from flu complications such as pneumonia and meningitis. The vaccine is also recommended for young adults who have lung, heart or liver problems or diabetes or asthma, he said.
It's impossible to predict the severity of an approaching flu season, which usually picks up steam in December and peaks in February before easing in March and April. The flu causes an estimated 200,000 hospitalizations and between 3,000 and 49,000 deaths in a typical year, according to the CDC.
For more on the flu, visit the CDC.