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Have There Been Lower Vaccination Rates This Flu Season?

by Iyue Sung, PhD, Director of athenaResearch

Next week is Thanksgiving, meaning the official start of the holiday season — and the unofficial start of flu season. Reports of production delays for flu vaccines leads to this edition’s question: Have there been lower vaccination rates this year?

Fortunately, data from the athenahealth cloud-based network suggests that the production delays have had minimal impact. These estimates are based on approximately 43 million primary care visits nationally from 2012 and 2014, between the 30th and 46th weeks of the year (week 46 in 2014 ended November 16).

Figure 1 shows the percentage of patient visits that included a flu shot during the first 17 weeks of the flu season (roughly the end of July through November 15). It appears that, for that period of time, vaccination rates are actually slightly higher this year compared to the last two seasons.

However, there are signs that influenza-like illness (ILI) rates are starting to climb, especially in the Midwest. Figure 2 suggests that the region might be headed towards either an early flu season, or flu levels that will fall between last year’s relatively mild outbreak and the severe levels of the 2012-2013 season.

Figure 3 shows that, on a national level, ILI rates are moving at a similar trajectory to last year’s trends. Although Ebola has justifiably received tremendous disease surveillance attention this year, influenza has the highest associated mortality rate of any infectious disease, on the order of thousands of deaths each year. As the flu season unfolds, we will continue to monitor changes in ILI rates from physicians on our EHR, and report out on any noteworthy patterns.

Also, to support efforts to monitor and control this disease, we provide data (summarized to preserve anonymity) to researchers and public health departments interested in better understanding flu patterns. For example, healthmap.org uses athenaResearch data to anticipate trends in national ILI rates, and Columbus Public Health and the Cuyahoga Board of Health include our statistics in their weekly reports.

If you have a suggestion or comment regarding other ways we can put our data to good use in the service of public health, please reach out. And look for future flu trend reports right here.

athenaResearch analyst Stewart Richardson also contributed to this report.

As a statistician, Iyue is responsible for methodology, analytic infrastructure, and extracting data-driven insights from the athenahealth patient database. 

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