In a stepped up effort to promote vaccination against influenza during the 2018-2019 “flu season,” the non-profit organization SPARC (Sickness Prevention Achieved through Regional Collaboration) of Lakeville, Connecticut sponsored a “Vote & Vax” campaign throughout the United States to offer free influenza vaccinations at polling stations on Election Day earlier this week.1 2 3 4 5
According to Theresa Santoro of the Ridgefield Visiting Nurse Association in Connecticut, “The objective [of the Vote & Vax clinics] is to keep our populations healthy and free of the flu, and we make a very convenient, safe, efficient way to get your vaccine while you’re out there voting.”3
Organizers of the program cited last year, in which 80,000 people in the U.S. were reported to have died of influenza, as a factor in holding the clinics and encouraging Americans to get vaccinated. “Last year was a horrible year for the flu. There were 80,000 deaths from the flu last year,” said Debbie Stoops, RN who is the vaccination coordinator at the Bureau of Health in the city of York, Pennsylvania. week.4 6 7
The 80,000 figure was noted on September 25, 2018 by CDC director Robert Redfield, MD in an interview with the Associated Press. “I’d like to see more people get vaccinated. We lost 80,000 people last year to the flu,” said Dr. Redfield.8 9
However, there is some question about the accuracy of this estimate by the CDC.
In a recent article in The Vaccine Reaction, Marco Cáceres wrote, “That is an inflated figure which the CDC attained by combining the number of deaths caused by pneumonia, other respiratory illnesses and sepsis, along with those caused by lab confirmed type A or B influenza.”8
The simple truth of the matter is that, while pediatric deaths associated with lab confirmed influenza are reportable, no one really knows how many adults in the U.S. die of influenza each year. The CDC certainly doesn’t know, and it is upfront about that fact on its website. It says, “CDC does not know exactly how many people die from seasonal flu each year.”8
Initiated as a pilot project in 2004, Vote & Vax was subsequently expanded into a national program with the help of $200,000 in grant funding to 25 public health agencies from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).11
The program is now supported by numerous “collaborators,” including the American Public Health Association (APHA), Association of Immunization Managers (AIM), Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO), Families Fighting Flu (FFF), NACCHO, National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID), Parents of Kids with Infectious Diseases (PKIDS), and Visiting Nurse Associations of America (VNAA), as well as the RWJF.12
The founder of the RWJF, Robert Wood Johnson II, was the son of the co-founder of the medical products company Johnson & Johnson (J&J). He also served as the company’s president and chairman of the board. J&J is currently the fourth largest pharmaceutical company in the world and a major manufacturer of vaccines through its Janssen Vaccines division, which is working to develop a universal influenza vaccine that would target all influenza virus strains.13 14 15 16 17 18
In its financial statement for 2017, the RWJF reported owning $1.8 billion worth of Johnson & Johnson common stock—up from $1.5 billion in 2016.22
1 Sickness Prevention Achieved through Regional Collaboration. Sparc-Health.org.
2 Vote & Vax. VoteandVax.org.
3 Newman K. A Shot of Democracy. U.S. News & World Report Nov. 6, 2018.
4 Johnson S. Vote & Vaccinate in the City of York. Fox43 Nov. 5, 2018.
5 Wells K. Front Royal residents offered flu vaccination as they show up to vote. localDVM.com Nov. 6. 2018.
6 Ranzenberger K. Vaccination rates in York County are high. York Dispatch Aug. 15, 2016.
7 Press Release. City Health Bureau Hosts Special Flu Clinic for City Children. YorkCity.org.
8 Cáceres M. About Those 80,000 Deaths from Influenza… The Vaccine Reaction Oct. 24, 2018.
9 Stobbe M. APNewsBreak: 80,000 people died of flu last winter in US. Associated Press Sept. 26, 2018.
10 CDC. National Press Conference Kicks Off 2018-2019 Flu Vaccination Campaign. CDC.gov.
11 Shenson D, Adams M. The Vote and Vax program: public health at polling places. J Public Health Manag Pract 2008 Sep-Oct; 14(5): 476-80.
12 Collaborators. VoteandVax.org.
13 Robert Wood “General” Johnson II. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
14 Johnson & Johnson. Wikipedia.
15 Top 10 Pharmaceutical Companies 2018. IgeaHub.com.
16 Woods B. Scientists are now rushing to develop a universal flu vaccine. CNBC Jan. 26, 2018.
17 Universal flu vaccine. Johnson & Johnson.
18 National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Universal Influenza Vaccine Research. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. National Institutes of Health.
19 Branswell H. Despite push for a universal flu vaccine, the ‘holy grail’ stays out of reach. STAT Mar. 5, 2018.
20 Nelson F. Universal flu vaccine – quest for the holy grail. Medical Republic May 11, 2018.
21 Narula T. Amid grim flu season, scientists work to find “holy grail” vaccine. CBS This Morning Mar. 1,2018.
22 KPMG. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Financial Statements, December 31, 2017 and 2016. RWJF.org.