Flu shot season arrives bigger than ever

Flu shot season opens
Flu shot season opens Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/MCT

Just after the news that "swine flu" is no longer a global threat, it's time to roll up our sleeves for another shot.

Flu vaccination season started early this year, and it's expected to be bigger than ever.

A bumper crop of 160 million doses of seasonal flu vaccine is being produced, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. This is about 40 percent more than last year.

For the first time, the CDC is recommending universal influenza vaccination. Instead of confusing lists based on age and health status, now it’s simple: Everybody more than 6 months old is advised to get a shot.

“We in public health think that vaccination can benefit everybody. We’ve been moving in that direction for several years,” said CDC spokesman Tom Skinner.

“The bottom line is people can start getting vaccinated now. If it’s available, go get it.”

Pharmacy chains CVS and Walgreens offer vaccines in Kansas City.

Flu vaccination last year operated in crisis mode. In April 2009, the H1N1 virus, initially dubbed “swine flu,” appeared first in Mexico, then in the United States and then around the world.

Earlier this month, the World Health Organization declared the H1N1 pandemic over.

H1N1 emerged too late to be part of the usual, seasonal flu vaccine, so a separate vaccine was created. Seasonal flu vaccinations were pushed forward to September from their traditional October start to make time to offer the H1N1 vaccine next. Some were confused and others frustrated that H1N1 shots didn’t arrive as quickly as officials predicted.

Although the H1N1 virus caused some severe illnesses and deaths, particularly among children, overall it proved milder than many feared. But the threat of a potential deadly pandemic helped spawn new awareness of flu prevention.

Dispensers of hand sanitizing gels became common additions to kitchen counters and office desks. People learned to cover their coughs and sneezes. They kept sick kids home from school.

“These are all good things people have learned. Hopefully, they will carry that for a lifetime and not for just one season,” said Sharon Frey, a physician and flu vaccine researcher at St. Louis University.

Pharmacy chains anticipate that H1N1 memories will boost demand for shots this fall.

That’s what customer research suggests at CVS. The chain started offering shots on Sunday. Walgreens began several days earlier.

“We want to provide access to the vaccine while people are still thinking about it,” said Mike DeAngelis at CVS.

He also thinks the CDC’s urging of universal vaccination will boost demand.

Pharmacy chains have another reason for promoting the vaccine so widely: This is the first year that all states are permitting properly trained pharmacists to give shots.

The rules vary state by state. In Kansas, pharmacists are limited to vaccinating people 6 years or older; in Missouri, the minimum age is 12.

Flu is too fickle to predict which viral strain will be dominant each winter. To be on the safe side, this year’s flu vaccine has H1N1 among its three strains.

“These are all best guesses,” Frey of St. Louis University said. “H1N1 was the dominant virus last year. There’s no reason to think it won’t be back this year.”

All indications point to a vaccination season that will run far more smoothly than in 2009.

“There have just not been any major red flags go up yet,” said Lee Norman, chief medical officer at the University of Kansas Hospital.

“We hoping for a boring, predictable, effective season.”

These are some of the concerns you can lay to rest.

No need to worry about the safety of H1N1 vaccine. While some worried last year that the shot for this novel virus hadn’t been tested adequately, Norman said: “I think we feel a terrific amount of comfort with the H1N1 vaccine. It has a very, very favorable safety profile.”

No need to worry about getting a shot too early, experts said. Immunity is good for at least six months — enough to get through peak flu season — and perhaps as long as a year.

No need to worry about shortages. Without glitches, plenty of shots and nasal spray should be available.

Rick Murphy of Healthy Solutions, an Overland Park company that holds flu shot clinics at area supermarkets and businesses, said its clinics start next month. It has most of its vaccine on hand.

The Greater Kansas City Chapter of the American Red Cross plans to hold about 230 clinics from September through November. It has received several thousand doses of vaccine and was notified Wednesday of several thousand more that are being shipped.

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