Flu vaccine guards against new strains
Published: Wednesday, October 3, 2012 at 1:20 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 3, 2012 at 1:20 p.m.
Time to get your flu vaccine — and a surprising new report shows babies and toddlers seem to be getting protected better than the rest of us.
Last year's flu shot won't shield you this year: Two new strains of influenza have begun circling the globe, and the updated vaccine appears to work well against them, government officials said last Thursday.
Just because last year was the mildest flu season on record doesn't mean the virus might not bounce back to its usual ferocity this winter.
"People cannot become complacent this year," said Dr. Howard Koh, assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, who received his own flu shot last Thursday.
A yearly vaccination now is recommended for nearly everybody, but new figures released last Thursday show that last year 52 percent of children and just 39 percent of adults were immunized.
Best protected: Three-quarters of tots ages 6 months to 23 months were vaccinated. That's a significant jump from the previous year, when 68 percent of those youngsters were immunized. But even though seniors are at especially high risk of severe illness or death if they catch the flu, just 66 percent of them were immunized, a number that has been slowly dropping for several years.
Older adults got a little lost in the recent public health push to explain that the flu vaccine benefits all ages — and it's time to target them again, said Dr. Daniel Jernigan, a flu specialist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In contrast, child deaths from flu have made headlines in recent years — the U.S. counted 34 pediatric deaths last year — raising parents' awareness of the risk, he said.
The only ones who shouldn't get vaccinated: babies younger than 6 months and people with severe allergies to the eggs used to make the vaccine.
Flu specialists can't say how bad this winter's flu season might be. Influenza strains constantly evolve, and some cause more illness than others.
But strains from the H3N2 family tend to be harsher than some other flu types, and a new H3N2 strain is included in this year's vaccine because it is circulating in parts of the world.
Because of that strain, "I am pretty confident that this year will be a more traditional flu season" than last year, CDC's Jernigan told The Associated Press. "People won't have had any real exposure to that."
Only one ingredient in this year's flu vaccine was retained from last year's, protection against the H1N1 strain that caused the 2009 swine flu pandemic and has been the main kind of influenza circulating since. Also new in this year's shot is protection against a different Type B strain.
Manufacturers are expected to make about 135 million doses of flu vaccine this year, and there are four different forms to choose from:
The traditional flu shot is for all ages and people with high-risk health conditions.
FluMist, the squirt-up-the-nose version, is for healthy people ages 2 to 49 who aren't pregnant.
A high-dose shot is available for people 65 and older.
And the intradermal shot — a skin-deep prick instead of the usual inch-long needle — is available for 18- to 64-year-olds.
The vaccine is covered by insurance, and Medicare and some plans don't require a copay; drugstore vaccination programs tend to charge about $30.
People can be vaccinated anytime, but Jernigan cautioned that it takes about two weeks for protection to kick in. Flu typically starts to appear in October or November, and peaks in January or February.
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