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Why you should encourage employees to get a flu shot

Flu season is here once again, and now is the time for all of us to take a simple, safe, highly effective step to prevent a disease that kills thousands of American men, women, and children every year. That precaution takes only seconds, is affordable and often free, but only half of eligible Americans take advantage of it: getting a flu vaccine. The flu vaccine doesn't just protect you, it protects everyone with whom you come into contact.

A man receives a flu shot from a nurse practitioner in the MinuteClinic at a CVS pharmacy in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
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A man receives a flu shot from a nurse practitioner in the MinuteClinic at a CVS pharmacy in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Influenza—or flu—can make anyone sick, including healthy employees who are critical to business operations and continuity. Flu creates an unnecessary economic burden of more than $87 billion each year in the United States alone. Flu forces 31.4 million annual outpatient visits and more than 200,000 hospitalizations—not to mention up to tens of thousands of senseless, preventable deaths and disabilities. Businesses are in unique positions to leverage their influence to mitigate this annual cycle of disease through education, outreach, and employment practices.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—the CDC—which provides influenza guidance to businesses, communities, and individuals, recommends vaccination as the single best way to prevent flu.

Challenges—and what business can do

Employers play an important role in helping to protect employees' health and reducing losses in productivity and revenue. Each year, vaccines prevent more than six million cases of the flu and nearly 80,000 hospitalizations.

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Employers can lead by example, with senior leaders and managers getting vaccinated as early as possible themselves, then encouraging their staffs to do the same. I do this myself every year, as do my fellow leaders at Kaiser Permanente.

Businesses can educate employees about flu vaccine, address misconceptions about the vaccine—such as the myth that the vaccine can actually cause the flu (which is scientifically just not true)—and offer access to vaccination on-site either free or at minimal cost to employees. Businesses can also remind employees to take simple preventive steps to reduce the spread of germs, such as frequent hand washing. Businesses can help employees stop the spread of flu by having leave policies that encourage workers to stay home when they are sick. And businesses can partner with CDC and state and local health departments.

Flu prevention vital to healthy economy

People often minimize the flu as an annoyance to be endured. Far from it, influenza is a serious and often deadly disease. Flu- prevention efforts, like those led by CDC, help avert illness, hospitalization and death for Americans every year, and protect employers and the U.S. economy from billions of dollars in flu-related losses. The 2009 H1N1 pandemic was a wake-up call. More recently, the 2013 outbreak of H7N9 flu in China demonstrated how quickly influenza viruses can emerge, mutate, and spread. These situations were very real and alarming to the United States and to the world.

Collaborative efforts in the United States over the past five years have led to improved and expanded flu vaccine technology. Now, in the event of an unexpected flu virus outbreak, private-sector manufacturers have more flexibility and more capacity to produce more effective vaccines quickly. At the consumer level, vaccination options have proliferated since the 2009 pandemic, as pharmacy chains, retail stores, and myriad other partners offer low-cost flu vaccinations.

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Key advances in diagnostics over the past five years make it faster and easier to detect and quickly respond to flu, both in the clinical setting and in the nation's public health labs.

Now is the time for all of us to take two simple personal steps to prevent this deadly disease: Get your flu vaccine today, and urge your family, friends and colleagues at work to do the same. I have, and I ask you to do so too.

Commentary by Raymond J. Baxter, Ph.D., Kaiser Permanente senior vice president for community benefit, research, and health policy and CDC Foundation board member.