September is the month when health care providers begin administering flu shots. Flu, or influenza, is a highly contagious virus that infects the lungs, nose, and throat. The elderly, young children, pregnant women and people with certain health conditions can experience serious and sometimes fatal complications. Flu season generally runs from October to March, peaking during December, January or February. The severity and duration of the flu season varies from year to year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over the 30 years between 1976 and 2006, estimates of flu-associated deaths in the United States ranged from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000 people.
The best way to protect yourself and your loved ones is to be vaccinated against the flu. Flu shots are recommended for anyone older than 6 months, but especially for people over 65, children younger than 5, people who have weakened immune systems, and their caregivers and family members. Each year, the seasonal flu vaccine protects against the three influenza viruses that research suggests will be most common that year.
Vaccines work by stimulating your immune system to build up resistance to particular diseases. Tiny amounts of killed germs, parts of germs, naturally occurring less severe forms of the germs, or modified live germs are injected into your body, which then produces antibodies against them. Later, when bacteria or viruses try to invade your body, they are destroyed before they can cause any harm.
Flu vaccine is available in two forms: an injection containing tiny amounts of the killed virus, and a nasal spray made with live, weakened flu viruses (sometimes called LAIV for “Live Attenuated Influenza Vaccine”). LAIV is approved for use in healthy people 2 to 49 years of age who are not pregnant. In 2010-2011, a hi-dose injection was introduced for people 65 and older, and this season a new under-the-skin vaccine is available for people 18 to 64 years of age.
During the 1990s, public concern developed over thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative that had been used in some vaccines and other products since 1930. Some people suggested it was linked to the occurrence of autism. Since 2001, no thimerosal has been used in vaccines for children. It is present in multi-dose bottles of flu vaccine, to prevent the growth of bacteria introduced when the seal is broken, but it is not used in single doses or in the nasal spray.
Flu shots are available at most physicians’ offices, at public health centers, pharmacy clinics and public health clinics. Please talk to you doctor if you have questions or doubts about being immunized.