By Jamie Ducharme
December 17, 2018

Early numbers show that more people have gotten flu shots than they had at this time last year — but there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

About 45% of both children and adults had gotten a flu shot as of mid-November, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That’s almost 7% higher than last year’s early-season coverage estimate for kids, and about a 6% increase for adults. Overall, an estimated 37% of adults and 58% of children received a flu shot during the 2017-2018 flu season, according to the CDC.

The CDC’s latest data, which was based on surveys with adults and parents of children ages six months to 17 years, doesn’t explain why vaccination rates are up over last year, but it’s possible that the unusually severe 2017-2018 flu season, which killed about 80,000 people, motivated more people to get their shots this year.

However, the data deals only with early-season coverage, so it’s also possible that some people simply got vaccinated earlier this year than last. It’s too soon to say whether whole-season coverage rates will be higher than last year’s.

Dr. Tanaya Bhowmick, an assistant professor of medicine and infectious diseases at Rutgers’ Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, calls the preliminary numbers “exciting.” Nonetheless, they’re still well below the CDC’s target of near-universal vaccination. The agency recommends that almost every American older than six months of age get a flu shot, but a recent poll showed that about 40% of people don’t plan to heed that advice.

Bhowmick says high vaccination rates are crucial for public health. If more people get vaccinated, she explains, fewer people get sick. And if fewer people get sick, there’s less total flu virus to go around, reducing population illness rates.

“The vaccine protects the individual, but if there are more people in a population that are vaccinated, you’re not going have the virus running rampant,” Bhowmick says.

Cutting down on total virus spread is especially important since some people, such as babies younger than six months old, can’t get the vaccine. Even among those who do get vaccinated, some people don’t respond as well as others.

“Some adults are immunocompromised, so their immune systems are not as strong. They’re more susceptible to getting sick,” Bhowmick says. “It’s about protecting those people, too.”

While the 2018-2019 flu season has been relatively mild up to this point, Bhowmick cautions that “we’re still picking up,” and influenza activity is likely to intensify. She urges people who haven’t gotten their shots yet to do so, as she says it’s never too late “as long as it’s still flu season.”

Write to Jamie Ducharme at jamie.ducharme@time.com.

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