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Mark Prausnitz, Ph.D., Georgia Tech Regents professor in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, holds a microneedle vaccine patch containing needles that dissolve into the skin. (Credit: Christopher Moore, Georgia Tech)

If patients and health care workers could simply slap a patch on their arms and call it a day, would flu vaccination rates increase?

A flu vaccine patch could be close to becoming reality. The National Institute of Health, Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University published a study in “The Lancet” in June showing that an influenza vaccine can be administered safely and effectively using an experimental patch of dissolving microneedles. The vaccine patch used in the study was made of 100 solid, water-soluble needles capable of penetrating the skin. The patch is held on with adhesive, and the vaccine is released as the needle tips dissolve in the skin within minutes of application. The patch can then be peeled away and discarded like a used bandage strip instead of as sharps waste.

Researchers found that antibody responses generated by the patch vaccine were similar to those generated by the intramuscular injection, and immune responses were still present after six months. There were also no significant differences found between vaccine patch doses delivered by health care workers or self-administered by study participants, showing that participants could successfully self-administer the patch. And beyond some local skin reactions, such as faint redness and mild itching that lasted two or three days, the vaccine patches were found to be safe.

What did participants think about the flu vaccine patch? Although the study size was quite small, with only 50 of the 100 participants receiving the patch, more than 70 percent of the patch recipients said they would prefer the patch over the injection or nasal spray. This could be good news for vaccination rates, which have been strikingly low over the last few years.

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Last flu season, only two of every five U.S. children and adults – or less than 50 percent of each key age group – were vaccinated by November 2016. The early flu vaccination rate among health care workers last season was only slightly better at 68.5 percent. And for pregnant women, who are at a high risk of serious illness from the flu? Early vaccination rates were only 46.6 percent.

According to The Washington Post, the CDC feared last year’s vaccination rates would be low because the nasal spray was no longer available after three years of use showed it failed to protect young children. But what excuse do we adults have for not getting vaccinated, especially when influenza-related hospitalizations are highest for people 64 and older and second highest for people 54 to 64 years old?

“It’s the Rodney Dangerfield of diseases,” CDC Director Tom Frieden told The Washington Post. “It gets no respect.”

The flu vaccine patches can be stored without refrigeration for at least one year without losing potency, and the cost to manufacture the patch is expected to be competitive with prefilled syringes. The real cost-savings, though? Health care workers don’t have to administer it. Imagine a “fast pass” line in urgent care centers, where patients can check in with urgent care staff and receive a flu vaccine patch, which they’ll take with them and self-administer at home.

Now that’s convenient medical care urgent care centers can easily provide.

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