Last year's flu season proved the disease's impact can be unpredictable, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and infectious disease experts warned Thursday at press conference urging Americans to get their flu shots now.
"Our message today is simple," Dr. Howard Koh, assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "Everyone 6 months of age and older should receive a flu vaccine."
The good news, according to the government health agency, is that more kids and health care workers got vaccinated during last year's flu season, compared to previous years. That's key, because children and people with preexisting health conditions are at higher risk for more serious cases of flu.
But, those positive trends are not going to put the brakes on the CDC's efforts to tout the vaccines, especially among some high-risk groups still lagging in coverage rates.
"Despite substantial progress, we can do even more to make our country healthier through prevention," said Koh. "We must do everything possible now to be prepared."
The CDC's press conference was held by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) Thursday morning in Washington. Health officials revealed a report card on how last year's vaccination rates compared to previous seasons', while laying out the available shots for the 2013-2014 flu season.
Seventy-two percent of healthcare workers got a flu vaccine last year, a record high. More than 90 percent of doctors got the shot -- but overall rates were dragged down by non-medical personnel at health care facilities.
Vaccine coverage rose 5 percent year over year for children aged 6 months through 17 years old, with about 57 percent receiving the shot during the 2012-2013 season. Smaller upticks were seen in adults 18 and older, with 41.5 percent getting vaccinated, up about 3 percent from the 2011-2012 flu season.
Pregnant women's vaccination rates stalled around 50 percent last year, and officials hope to make a dent in the other half of those women. They pointed out babies can't get vaccines until they are 6 months old, so a mother's vaccine is the only protection they have.
The worst rate improvements were found among people working in long-term care facilities. Vaccination can offer the most protection and prevent workers from spreading the disease to the elderly and people with weakened immune systems, said Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. Only 59 percent of those workers got shots, an area health officials will target for improvement this year.
"If you are around people at high risk for flu complications, you need to get vaccinated," said Schuchat. "And nowhere is this need clearer than in our nation's hospitals, clinics and long-term care facilities."
As for seniors themselves, 2012-2013 vaccination rates were highest in adults 65 and over, with about 66 percent getting the shot. But, they ended up being among the worst protected by last year's vaccine.
Vaccine effectiveness rates hovered around 56 percent overall, meaning it will prevent disease completely about 56 percent of the time. But elderly individuals had lower effectiveness at only 50 percent overall, withof last year's flu season, an H3N2 A strain.
Dr. William Schaffner, past-president of NFID who serves on the CDC's committee that selects the strains used in each year's shot, told CBSNews.com that studies since then showed the vaccine was closer to the 30 percent effectiveness typically seen in high-risk elderly patients, but it just affirms that the vaccine isn't perfect. However, one point that gets lost in effectiveness rates is older people who get a vaccine are more likely to experience much milder illness than a severe one, and may have better protection against pneumonia and more severe complications of flu.
Last year's flu epidemic started with, hitting the elderly hardest.
Sharp increases in flu-related hospitalization rates were reported in adults 65 and older beginning in mid-December. It went as high as 182 hospitalizations per 100,000 seniors by mid-March, the highest proportion of hospitalizations for this age group since the 2005-2006 flu season. The flu season came to a close by the end of March, the CDC said.
The CDC also reported 164 pediatric deaths from flu last year, which, outside of the 2009 pandemic season, was higher than any year since the agency started collecting data. The agency does not track adult death rates, but about 36,000 Americans will die of flu-related complications during an average flu season. About 90 percent of those deaths occur in seniors 65 and over.
Last year's flu vaccination rates were published Sept. 26 in the CDC's journal, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
This year's vaccine will protect against three viral strains most likely to cause the flu in the upcoming year: Two Influenza A strains that resemble versions of a 2009 H1N1 and 2011 H3N2 strains, and one influenza-B strain similar to the 2012 virus.a second B-strain from a 2008 virus.
Schuchat touted that this year's vaccine had more options than ever before, including the new quadrivalent vaccine. All nasal sprays will have these four strains, while most shots -- an option for-- will have three. There will also be a higher dose option for older adults, which Schaffner touted as about 24 percent more effective for the elderly than the typical vaccine, based on recent study results..
He added that seniors over 65 or younger people with chronic conditions should also be reminded this time of year to get a pneumococcal vaccine, which could offer them "double-barreled protection" against flu complications.
Health officials urged people to go to vaccines.gov to find a flu shot in your area. They didn't recommend one shot over another, reiterating the best vaccine is "one that's delivered." People need two weeks for their bodies to build up enough disease-fighting antibodies to protect against flu, they pointed out.
"That first cough or fever is not the time to think about vaccination," warned Schuchat. "Today is the day to think about vaccination."