With flu season approaching, area health officials are urging people to get vaccinated before the influenza viruses start circulating.
Flu season typically begins here in October, and vaccines remain plentiful.
“Last year, a lot of people put off getting vaccinated and when the flu peaked, there was a surge in demand and offices ran out of vaccine. There was a temporary shortage,” said Dr. Gale Burstein, Erie County health commissioner.
The lengths and severity of flu seasons vary, making it hard to predict what will happen in coming months, Burstein said.
But among some differences are the expanded vaccine choices. They include:
• New “quadrivalent” vaccines that protect against four strains of the virus, in addition to the traditional trivalent vaccine.
• A new egg-free vaccine, Flublok, for people with egg allergies.
• Fluzone, a high-dose vaccine for older people with weaker immune systems.
• Fluzone intradermal, a shot for people afraid of long needles that barely pricks the skin with an array of micro-needles.
• A nasal spray vaccine, called FluMist, a popular choice for children.
Vaccine-makers project they will produce about 139 million doses of flu vaccine for use in the United States, of which an estimated 32 million doses will be the four-strain vaccine, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We don’t anticipate any supply problems, but there is a limited amount of the quadrivalent, and it may be gone by December,” Burstein said.
Although the quadrivalent vaccine may offer improved protection, health officials this year are not giving it preference over the trivalent.
For years, seasonal flu vaccines have protected against three strains – two types of influenza A and one of influenza B. The new vaccine includes protection against a second strain of influenza B.
Unlike other viral respiratory infections, such as the common cold, the flu can cause serious illness, especially in the elderly, pregnant women and individuals with chronic medical conditions.
More sites than ever offer immunizations, including physician offices, pharmacies and large-scale programs conducted at businesses and public locations, such as those offered here by Independent Nursing Care, the Catholic Health System and the Visiting Nursing Association.
Independent Nursing Care expects to provide about 33,000 vaccinations this season at corporate and public clinics, a figure substantially lower than the 50,000 shots a year common before the 2008 law that allowed pharmacists to offer certain immunizations.
Nearly 10,000 pharmacists in the state are certified to immunize adults against the flu, and many pharmacies began offering shots as soon as vaccine shipments arrived in late August.
“We’ve seen tremendous demand. But it’s hard to say if that is typical because I’m seeing my regular clientele,” said Dennis Galluzzo, owner of Family Medical Pharmacy in Williamsville and executive director of the Pharmacists’ Association of Western New York.
Except for counties with small populations, for a pharmacist to administer vaccine, a nonpatient specific order must be signed by a state-licensed physician or nurse practitioner practicing in the same county as the pharmacist. This has posed a problem in Niagara County, said Galluzzo, because a physician has not been identified to authorize all the independent pharmacists certified to immunize, as is the case in Erie County.
“A few pharmacists don’t have an order from a physician. We’ve tried to address it, but it has been a dilemma,” he said. “Physicians think there are liability issues, but there aren’t.”
The effectiveness of the flu vaccine depends in part on the match between the viruses in the vaccine and the viruses in circulation. As a result, the vaccine does not ensure total protection.
The CDC estimates that last year’s vaccine effectiveness was 56 percent for all age groups, meaning it reduced a person’s chance of getting the flu by more than half. But effectiveness was much lower for people 65 and older.
Regardless, health officials say the vaccine remains the best way to protect yourself from getting the flu or giving it to someone else.
She and others said too many people confuse the flu, a serious illness, with other respiratory illnesses, such as the common cold.
“We say the flu to mean many things,” said Dr. Colleen Mattimore of Western New York Pediatrics. As a result, she said, many people conclude that the flu isn’t that bad or that the vaccine doesn’t work or that they don’t get the flu.
“There are still a lot myths out there about the flu and flu vaccines,” Mattimore said.
The one she hears more than any other is that the vaccines, which contain substances known as antigens that cause the body to defend itself, is too much for a baby’s immune system to handle.
“It’s a real misunderstanding of how things work,” she said. “The antigens in the vaccine are a drop in the bucket of what we’re exposed to in our lives.”