Believe it or not, there are more U.S. citizens who die from influenza each year than die in passenger car/truck crashes: about 36,000 versus slightly more than 32,000.

Why the comparison? Because many of the deaths in both scenarios could have been prevented. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration documented that nearly two-thirds of those killed in passenger car/truck crashes in 2002 weren't wearing their seat belts, while the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) determined flu shots prevent influenza in about 70 to 90 percent of healthy persons younger than age 65 years-which essentially constitutes the workforce of America. Among elderly nursing home residents, the flu shot can be 50 to 60 percent effective in preventing hospitalization or pneumonia and 80 percent effective in preventing death from flu.

An estimated 10 to 20 percent of U.S. residents get the flu each year. Symptoms of influenza can be severe and can last for two weeks. If you apply even the low end of the percentage range to your company's workforce and figure only five workdays lost, that estimate of potentially lost "man-hours" could be significant.

We, in health care, don't have a very good track record of getting the flu shots ourselves. Across the country in 2003, about 36 percent of those involved in patient care were immunized. While the six hospitals of OSF HealthCare were better than the national average, we've made an organization-wide commitment to immunize as many of our employees, volunteers, and physicians as possible prior to this year's flu season. The theme of our campaign is "Protect those we serve, our families and ourselves."

Who should get the flu vaccine? The federal CDC recommends an annual flu shot for all children six months to 23 months of age, household contacts and out-of-home caretakers of infants up to 23 months, people 50 years or older, residents of long-term care facilities, people with long-term health problems or metabolic diseases, people with weakened immune systems, people on long-term aspirin therapy, and women who'll likely be pregnant during influenza season. In addition, physicians, nurses, family members, or anyone else coming in close contact with people at risk of serious influenza should be immunized, as should anyone else who wants to reduce the chance of catching influenza.

There will be no shortage of flu vaccine this year; the two major manufacturers have produced 20 million more doses, bringing their combined total available to 100 million doses. The vaccine is safe. The risk of a serious complication from the vaccine is many times smaller than the risk of getting influenza and suffering a serious or fatal outcome. For a young healthy adult, that later risk is small. Seeing a healthy young woman die in 48 hours, leaving a six-week-old baby motherless, changed my idea about the risk-benefit ratio. I've been getting the immunization every year now to avoid transmitting influenza to my loved ones. Having crossed the age threshold several years ago, it's also getting harder to deny I'm bullet proof. Severe flu might just be more than I could handle at my age.

To facilitate the employees of your organization getting flu shots, contact your occupational health provider, your health insurance carrier, or your public health department. The small up-front costs of the flu shots easily will be offset by less sick time used by your employees. It's important to note that influenza is a very contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. The main way influenza viruses are spread is from person to person in respiratory droplets of coughs and sneezes. So strongly encourage all of your employees to get a flu shot-and their family members as well. IBI