Benefits

Ammunition for Immunization

By Kelley Butler

Aug. 3, 2014

It's the dog days of summer — those hot and humid weeks of August are when you want to stay inside and keep cool. This month, help your employees by letting them know that some of the best air-conditioned places around are doctor’s offices and pharmacies. Hint, hint.

While it’s already known for the heat, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services would like August to be known for health as well. This month is National Immunization Awareness Month, and employers committed to employee health and wellness — that’s all of them, right? — should feel compelled to participate given recent statistics around immunization and illness.Retiree health care chart 1 November 2013

The whooping cough outbreak that occurred in California in 2010 was traced earlier this year to children who hadn’t received the pertussis vaccine to prevent the disease. It was the nation’s worst in more than 50 years.

Nationwide, more cases of whooping cough occurred in geographic areas of clustered unvaccinated children, leading to 9,120 instances of the disease and 10 deaths.

Further, although measles was declared eradicated in the United States in 2000, there have been recent outbreaks in California, New York and Texas, and the disease is on track to infect three times as many people as in 2009. The spike is being traced back to unvaccinated individuals traveling abroad, getting infected, then bringing the disease back home to their U.S. communities.

Everyone loves a deal; staying healthy at no cost is one of the best deals around.

While there were just 189 cases of measles nationwide last year, health experts are concerned since the disease is so highly contagious and cases are rising rapidly. In California alone, there were four measles cases all of last year. By March 2014, there were already 49 across the state.

It’s not just childhood immunizations that are going uncompleted. Health experts emphasize that an annual flu shot is the best and easiest way to prevent the disease and its spread. However, yearly federal statistics show that only about a third of U.S. adults get a flu shot — a percentage that’s held steady for more than five years — while influenza and its related complications cause tens of thousands of deaths each year.

Employers can play a key role in communication and education about the importance of immunization, and have a ready-made promotion vehicle this month. Visit health finder.gov, keywords “national immunization awareness month” for free materials, resources and campaign ideas to spread awareness instead of illness among your workforce.

Then, here are a few other ideas to effectively communicate with employees about getting vaccinated:

Tell them it’s free! Under the Affordable Care Act, preventive care, including immunizations, must be covered 100 percent with no copays or cost-sharing. Everyone loves a deal; staying healthy at no cost is one of the best deals around. Lead with that message, and you’ll be off to a solid start.

Make it easy. I’m not certain, but my strong suspicion is that flu vaccination rates among adults are so low because we’re busy, and we view taking an hour to go get a flu shot as inconvenient and no fun. Combat inertia and excuses by offering on-site flu-shot clinics during the workday, if possible. If not, provide employees with a list of nearby pharmacies or physicians where they can get immunized.

Stay sensitive to health concerns and cultural convictions. It’s important to remember that parents have their children’s best interests at heart, and don’t take lightly the decision not to vaccinate their kids. There’s general consensus in the health community that childhood vaccines don’t pose long-term risk. However, parents who don’t vaccinate their children feel compelled to do so for cultural or religious reasons, or because they have genuine concerns about the effects on their child’s health. Employers have to respect those concerns and beliefs, and make sure any immunization campaign is positive and proactive — not prescriptive and pushy.

Employers remain a trusted and reliable source of information. I encourage you to use that influence toward addressing a national issue this month.

Kelley M. Butler is the editorial director at Benz Communications, an HR/benefits communication strategy firm. Before joining Benz, Butler spent 11 years at Employee Benefit News, including seven as editor-in-chief. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.

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