Disease experts urge mandatory flu shots for healthcare workers

Flu vaccines for healthcare professionals are an ethical responsibility that should be mandatory, infectious disease experts are arguing this week.

In a paper published Tuesday, the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America (SHEA) recommends that all healthcare workers — even students, volunteers, contractors and those without direct patient contact — receive annual flu shots as a condition of their employment. Only workers known to react adversely to the vaccine should be excepted, SHEA argues. 

“Healthcare providers are ethically obligated to take measures proven to keep patients from acquiring influenza in healthcare settings," SHEA President Neil Fishman said in a statement

"Mandatory vaccination is the cornerstone to a comprehensive program designed to prevent the spread of influenza which also includes identification and isolation of infected patients, adherence to hand hygiene and cough etiquette, the appropriate use of protective equipment, and restriction of ill healthcare personnel and visitors in the facility."

The report — published in the latest edition of the Infection Control and Healthcare Epidemiology journal — won the quick endorsement of the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA).

“The scientific evidence shows significant reductions in the risk of influenza in both acute and long-term care settings as a result of strong immunization policies and programs,” said IDSA President Richard Whitley. “Vaccination of healthcare personnel saves patients’ lives and reduces illness."

The issue drew headlines last year amid an outbreak of the H1N1 flu. A survey conducted by the RAND Corporation during that pandemic found that, despite the severity of the outbreak, almost 40 of healthcare workers had no plans to get a flu shot. 

The survey is indication, Fishman and Whitley argue, that voluntary vaccination programs simply don't work well enough.