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January 31, 2013

Indiana’s new health commissioner faces flu epidemic in first days on the job

INDIANAPOLIS — Dr. William VanNess didn’t have to wait long before executing his duties as Indiana’s new top public health officer. 

On his first day of work two weeks ago, he found out that Gov. Mike Pence had been so busy campaigning last fall that he’d forgotten to get his annual flu vaccine. 

The governor asked if he could get a flu shot the following week. VanNess’ reply: “I said ‘No. You’re getting one tomorrow.” 

And Pence did — in front of news cameras at a press conference called by the governor to urge other Hoosiers to get vaccinated as well.

VanNess, a retired family physician and former head of a 173-bed community hospital in Anderson, doubts all the advice he’ll dole out as Indiana’s health commissioner will be followed so quickly. But he does feel a sense of urgency about the public’s health. 

In the week that Pence got his vaccine, the state health department reported 17 deaths from flu-related illnesses. As of Monday, the total number of flu deaths this season had climbed to 43 — making it the deadliest flu season in five years. 

Although the Centers for Disease Control reported Monday that there are some signs that the flu may be leveling off nationwide, VanNess said Indiana is still in the grips of a flu epidemic. So he continues to push the message: It’s not too late to get that flu vaccine. 

“True influenza is a really harsh disease,” said VanNess. “It’s a disease you do not want to get.” 

So how many Hoosiers haven’t been vaccinated against the flu? That’s a question that VanNess can’t answer.

Indiana has an electronic database of immunization records for children and adults, known as CHIRP (Children and Hoosiers Immunization Registry). 

But it’s voluntary; health care providers who administer vaccines — for the flu and a wide range of other diseases like polio, mumps or measles — aren’t required to enter that information into CHIRP. 

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