About 42% of Americans get a flu shot each year–a rate that is high by international standards, but not high enough when you consider the toll of flu season. The Centers for Disease Control tallies it at up to $90 billion annually, including medical expenses and lost working time.
Which raises the question: How do you raise the vaccination rate?
One possible way, according to researchers, is to take the procedure out of pharmacies and doctors’ offices and let people vaccinate themselves. Self-administration would be more convenient, they argue, and could be less painful if you also replaced traditional injections with new “micro-needle patch” devices.
A recent experiment tested how the patches–which have an array of 50 microscopic spikes and can be laced with liquid–could be used for delivering vaccine under outer layers of skin. Working with about 100 volunteers, researchers compared responses to the patch and a standard jab.
They found that a big majority preferred the new method, and that more people would get a vaccination if it was available–65% versus 46%.
“People don’t like injections,” says Mark Prausnitz, a professor at Georgia Tech, and one the leaders of the study. “By eliminating the needle and having a patch, it makes the idea of a flu vaccine more palatable to people.” And going home with a device you’ve bought off a shelf is easier than going to a doctor or pharmacist, he notes.
The experiment didn’t use actual vaccine: the patches and jab were placebos. The point was to gauge how people would get on with two types of patches. With one, where volunteers needed thumb pressure alone, some “needed multiple attempts and instruction to push harder in order to successfully self-administer” the patch. But with another, where the patch “snapped” when pushed hard enough, delivery was almost 100% successful.
If deployed widely, the patches could reduce flu-related costs, Prausnitz argues. One, because the health care system wouldn’t need to employ people to give out jabs. And two, because more people would be getting jabs (that is, if the findings were replicated across the wider population).
There’s a long way before that happens. Though the patches have been tested with animals (delivering vaccine), they haven’t made it to clinical trial stage yet. That will happen next year, with a full comparison with standard jabs. After that, Prausnitz hopes a drug company will pick up the idea. In any case, it would be at least five years before the patches are in Walgreens, so you can still expect exhortations to go get your vaccine next winter.