There are many reasons the influenza vaccination rate is well below 50 percent for most age groups in the U.S. Some people are against vaccinations altogether, others believe that getting the flu is no big deal, some are afraid of needles, others don't have the money, and some simply don't get around to scheduling and making the trip to the doc's office.
But a new study finding that people are actually quite good at self-administering painless microneedle flu vaccine patches hints at a future where at least some of these problems simply disappear altogether.
"Our dream is that each year there would be flu vaccine patches available in stores or sent by mail for people to self-administer," Mark Prausnitz, a Regent's professor in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said in a school news release. (He's been working on these patches for several years.) "People could take them home and apply them to the whole family. We want to get more people vaccinated, and we want to relieve health care professionals from the burden of giving these millions of vaccinations."
The research, published in the journal Vaccine by scientists from Georgia Tech, Emory University, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, finds that of the 91 people tested in the Atlanta metro area, none of whom had any previous experience using microneedle patches, every single person administered the patch correctly -- though not all on the first try.
After instructing each volunteer to apply three patches, and then having a fourth patch applied by a researcher, and a saline injection given using a hypodermic needle (none of these needles contained the actual vaccine), the researchers applied a dye to see the holes made by the microneedles and assess how well each patch had been applied.
It turns out that in the instances where the patch emitted a clicking sound indicating sufficient force, volunteers made no administration mistakes at all.
The test subjects seemed to like the patches, too. Only 46 percent of them entered the study saying they planned to get a flu shot next year if the patch were an option, but 65 percent of them said they'd get one after trying the patch.
"If this holds for the population as a whole, that would have a tremendous impact on preventing disease and the cost associated with both influenza and the vaccination process," Paula Frew, an assistant professor at Emory and a co-author of the study, said in the news release.
Given some 200,000 people are hospitalized and anywhere from 3,000 to 49,000 die of complications from influenza in the U.S. during any given year, even a modest uptick in immunization rates could result in lives saved. The patches could save health care dollars as well; the researchers say that if they can be produced at the same cost as current flu vaccines, then the cost of storing and administering the shots (which they say amounts to 75 percent of the total cost), not to mention the time it takes for patients to get to clinics, will be saved as well.
Researchers say that flu vaccine micropatches could be available in as few as five years.