Flu season does not officially begin until October. But like holiday merchandise, vaccines are showing up earlier and earlier.
Many pharmacies, supermarkets and big-box discount stores have already hung their “Flu shots today” signs.
Retailers and public health experts peg the preseason vaccination trend to the 2009 H1N1 epidemic, which caught many by surprise. Since then, manufacturers have been releasing their products in August instead of October.
Last year was one of the mildest flu seasons on record, said Dr. Lisa Grohskopf, a medical officer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s influenza division. But she says consumers shouldn’t get complacent; the CDC still recommends everyone older than 6 months be vaccinated.
“We know the flu is unpredictable, so we can’t say what this season will be like,” Grohskopf said.
Federal statistics projected that drug manufacturers would make as many 149 million vaccine doses for this season. The CDC does not anticipate shortages. About 132 million immunizations were given in 2011-12, covering about 45 percent of adults.
More people are getting immunized at the same places where they buy their groceries and fill their prescriptions rather than doctors’ offices. Many say they like the convenience. Retailers usually are set up to process insurance billing on-site, so customers with coverage or on Medicare pay nothing out of pocket.
A CDC report found that in the 2010-11 flu season, about 18 percent of adults received their flu shots in stores, while 40 percent went to doctors’ offices.
States regulate how vaccines are given outside of medical settings, and the CDC has no recommendations about where is the best place to get a shot. “We think it’s fortunate you now can get a flu vaccine in a wide variety of places,” Grohskopf said.
Here are answers to the most commonly asked flu questions.
Q: Do I need to be vaccinated against the flu?
A: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone age 6 months and older receive a flu vaccine. Those who most need immunization: seniors age 65 and older, pregnant women, patients with certain medical conditions, caregivers of patients who develop serious complications from contracting the flu.
Q: How does a flu shot work?
A: Seasonal influenza vaccines combine inactive strains of three flu viruses. The formula, when injected, encourages your immune system to build antibodies that fight infection. The vaccine works against the three most commonly circulating flu viruses: influenza B, the H1N1 A strain and the H3N2 A strain.
Q: Do I really need a vaccine every year?
A: Yes. That’s because public health officials annually look at which flu viruses will be most prevalent, then set a vaccine formula designed to thwart those particular strains. So the formula can change from year to year. The 2012-13 vaccine cocktail is different from last year’s, meaning you could be unprotected if you skip this year’s shot.
Q: What about children?
A: Children age 6 months through 8 years who never have been immunized for flu will need two shots, four weeks apart. The CDC also is advising that children this age who did not receive at least one dose of the 2010-2011 vaccine, or for whom its not certain they were immunized in 2010-2011, should receive two doses of the 2011-2012 seasonal vaccine. Ask your doctor for details.