By David Beasley
ATLANTA (Reuters) - Flu shots reduced the number of U.S. flu cases and hospitalizations last year by an estimated 17 percent, highlighting the need for increasing vaccination rates, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Thursday.
Vaccinations prevented more than six million cases of the flu and 79,000 hospitalizations, according to a CDC model that compared the actual number of flu cases and hospitalizations with the projected number that would have occurred had there been no vaccinations.
"This is by far the largest number of hospitalizations and other illnesses we've seen prevented" since 2005, said CDC Director Thomas Frieden.
Young children and elderly people benefited the most from the flu vaccine, making up more than two-thirds of those who avoided hospital stays, the CDC said.
Fewer than half of U.S. residents ages six months and older were vaccinated for the flu last year. The CDC said an additional 30,000 hospital visits could have been avoided if the vaccination rate had been 70 percent.
The agency could not say how many deaths were prevented by vaccinations.
The CDC described the last flu season as "moderately severe," with nearly 32 million cases reported nationally and 169 deaths of children and teenagers.
Flu cases typically peak between January and March, but there can be a significant number of cases as late as May, the CDC said.
Symptoms include fever, chills, cough and sore throats. The CDC recommends flu vaccinations for everyone over six months, and officials said it was not too late to get one this year.
"Influenza can cause a lot of illness, and it can be severe," Frieden said. "It's definitely worth getting the flu vaccine."
Three children have died as the result of the flu so far this season, the CDC said.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Chris Reese)