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Originally published Monday, September 13, 2010 at 7:04 PM

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Groups call for mandatory flu shots for health care workers

CDC: 40 percent of health care workers were vaccinated for flu between 2000 and 2005.

Scripps Howard News Service

Flu shots should be mandatory for health care workers, according to a policy statement issued recently by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The academy threw its support behind several other professional organizations that have made the same proposal, including the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the National Patient Safety Foundation and the Society of Healthcare Epidemiology of America.

In January, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics showed just 35 percent of health care workers received the H1N1 and seasonal flu vaccines. This season, the H1N1 vaccine is included in the seasonal flu shot.

CDC data show only about 40 percent of health care workers were vaccinated for the flu between 2000 and 2005.

California state law prohibits hospitals from compelling health care workers to get vaccinated for influenza, but a report issued this month by Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, suggests the voluntary vaccination policy isn't working.

According to the study, California public health data showed a seasonal flu vaccination rate of just over 52 percent for workers in nearly 250 hospitals and hospital groups in 2008-09.

The Consumers Union report also said the California Department of Public Health did not publish each hospital's vaccination rate for health care workers, which it was required to do after Senate Bill 739 passed in 2006.

Department spokesman Ralph Montano said a report is due out later this month. Montano said that when the mandate passed, no money was provided to fund it.

SB 739 says hospitals must provide flu vaccinations for workers, but if an employee elects not to be vaccinated, it must declare in writing that he or she declined vaccination.

Health workers not vaccinated may wear masks or have their vaccination status indicated on their identification badges.

"If they decline the inoculation, they will wear a surgical mask with a pregnant woman or a child under 7 years old," said Mike Ellingson, vice president of marketing for Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura.

In states where it's legal, some medical centers have made flu shots a condition of employment for health care workers. Refuse the shot and you don't work, at least during flu season.

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The University of Pennsylvania Medical Center was among those that required vaccines when a voluntary policy didn't work.

"This is a no-brainer and it's almost embarrassing that we have to get to the point of mandating it for the health of our patients," said Dr. Neil Fishman, its director of health care epidemiology and infection prevention.

Fishman, president of the Society of Healthcare Epidemiology of America, said the center implemented its mandatory policy in 2009, resulting in a 99 percent vaccination rate.

"We did not have a lot of push-back from unions or employees," Fishman said. "There were a handful of individuals who were suspended but began working again after the influenza season."

Fishman said health care workers come in contact with the most vulnerable population: those most likely to be among the roughly 40,000 Americans who die every year from seasonal flu.

"When people make the decision to enter the health care field, we assume an ethical responsibility to protect our patients from infection," Fishman said. "This is the best way to protect them."

Contact Ventura County (Calif.) Star reporter Kim Lamb Gregory at kgregory@insidevc.com.

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