Here's a big, simple idea to reduce the impact of flu outbreaks every winter, saving lives and economic output lost due to the disease: Vaccinate all the children.
As we know or remember, kids are dirty things. They play in dirt, touch everything, and then share their germs. While older populations may be the most susceptible to dying from the flu, prioritizing them for shots does nothing to quell the seasonal-outbreak cycle. If you want to reduce flu outbreaks overall, researchers in the journal Vaccine argue, stop it at the source—the kids.
The author's base their conclusions on a computer analysis of flu data from Europe (they say it's better than the data we have here and it should extrapolate). They find:
In general, vaccinating schoolchildren and young adults was the optimal strategy for mitigating seasonal influenza due to schoolchildren being most responsible for influenza transmission, while vaccinating their parents (young adults) serves to block transmission to the rest of the population. Therefore, prioritizing these age groups for vaccination generates substantial benefit for the entire population through herd immunity.
It may be strange to think of humans as a "herd," but what that means is that when a strategic portion of a population is immune to a disease, the whole population is more or less immune. This colorful chart from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases illustrates:
There's a lot of savings to be had in achieving a better "herd immunity," both in money and in lives. The flu is blamed for 36,000 deaths annually, and costs the economy $87 billion annually.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does recommend that every person 6 months and older get a flu shot (before 2000, it only recommended people over age 65 get them). But the implementation isn't there yet. According to a 2011 study on school vaccination programs, "neither private practices nor public clinics have the capacity to vaccinate a high proportion of children between the time that influenza vaccine becomes available at the end of the summer and the peak of the influenza season in late winter or early spring of the following year." The research showed some promise for a school vaccination program: In a survey of districts that have them, 40 to 50 percent of students were vaccinated.