In a new effort to reset flu shot expectations, CDC will avoid messaging that “could be seen as a scare tactic”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it has launched a new public relations campaign this year to “reset expectations” around the flu vaccine after the agency’s consumer survey found that some Americans misunderstand the benefits of the annual shot.

“People are more likely to perceive messages as believable and credible if they set realistic expectations about what vaccines can and cannot do,” the CDC’s Sara Dodge Ramey told a panel of federal vaccine advisers at a meet Friday.

Ramey said the agency is new “Wild to Mild” campaign had been created as a result of a dozen focus groups in June and July earlier this year.

That led them to roll out a campaign this year that was carefully crafted to “avoid messaging that could be seen as a scare tactic,” she said, acknowledging some pronounced “fatigue” around talking about important steps to avoid die of respiratory diseases this fall and winter.

“There were mixed feelings about vaccines. Some were adamant about getting all recommended vaccines. Some thought they were ineffective or unnecessary, and most landed in the middle of the two extremes,” she said.

The new campaign, which Ramey said “had a soft launch” online in August, aims to highlight “a strong and growing body of evidence that influenza vaccination reduces the risk of serious outcomes in people who get vaccinated but still get sick.”

After improving over several years, the CDC’s surveys suggest that seasonal influenza vaccination rates have largely declined nationwide following the COVID-19 pandemic.

A little more than half of Americans said they had gotten the shot. Some age groups, such as children ages 5 to 17, reported lower rates than before the pandemic.

It comes as officials brace for a return of a spike in infections in the colder months from three different viruses — COVID-19, influenza and RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus — as federal disease forecasts anticipate could burden the hospitals again this year.

Levels of influenza remain largely low in most parts of the country, CDC say, but has begun to climb in some jurisdictions. Some laboratories have also begun to report increasing positive tests of RSV in patients, esp in the southeast.

Emergency room visit with COVID-19 has been slower in recent weeks nationwide after a peak from a wave that started in late summer. After summer and autumn waves, previous years have seen renewed increases in the virus in the colder months.

Beyond just the flu, Ramey said the agency is also preparing separate efforts to raise awareness around the “general pan-respiratory season.”

“The term ‘viral respiratory disease season’ seemed long and unnecessary and an escalation that felt scary to many. Most participants preferred ‘flu’ or ‘cold and flu’ season or ‘fall and winter’,” she said.

The CDC’s advice on how to avoid catching and spreading these three viruses hasn’t changed much since last year. But for the first time, all three viruses have now also received new vaccines.

Newly approved RSV vaccines are now available for older adults and pregnant mothers. Newly designed COVID-19 and flu vaccines are also now rolling out to virtually all Americans.

“When vaccines were included in a list of preventive activities, some people pointed out that listing it first might detract from the value of the list, although they would be okay with seeing vaccines somewhere on the list, just not first,” said Ramey.

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