November 5, 2012 

The best way to avoid the flu is a flu shot. And, lame excuses aside, most people should get one before the flu season is in full swing.

Fortunately, many South Carolinians seem to be heeding that advice. Pharmacists across the state are reporting a steady demand for flu shots, even though last year’s season was relatively mild.

A mild season last year is no indication this year’s will be the same. Experts note that flu seasons can be unpredictable, so any year can feature a heavy outbreak.

One such season occurred in 2009-10 when the H1N1 “swine” flu created early vaccine shortages and sparked severe warnings from health officials and concern verging on panic among the public. Thankfully, while the swine flu was widespread, the global epidemic that some had feared did not materialize.

Since then the H1N1 vaccine has been included in the annual “package” that constitutes the universal flu shot. This year’s vaccine includes new strains – including one from the harsher H3N2 family – that were not included in last year’s vaccine.

Of course no vaccine is guaranteed to protect us completely from the flu. Health officials make an educated guess as to which strains might be the most prevalent and try to concoct a shot that will work against those, but there is no way to be entirely certain which strains will evolve.

Still, while a flu shot is not perfect, it is the best available defense. And those who don’t get the shot – or one of the other forms of vaccination now available – are more vulnerable than those who do.

The traditional flu shot administered by needle is available for anyone age 6 months or older. But people aged 18-64 also can get the intradermal flu shot – widely available at pharmacies and clinics – featuring a shorter, thinner needle.

Those older than 65 can get a higher dose shot. And those aged 2 to 49 can get the vaccination in the form of a nasal spray.

The flu is a serious illness. It can knock people down for two weeks and can be life threatening for those with chronic medical conditions such as asthma, pregnant women, those with auto-immune diseases, the elderly and others.

But getting a flu shot is more than just personal protection. It also is something of a public service.

Those who get a flu shot are less likely to contract the disease and spread it to others. That is especially true for health care workers, parents of young children, teachers, caregivers and those who regularly come into contact with lots of people.

So, what’s your excuse for not getting a flu shot? The notion that the vaccine will make you sick is a fallacy. The vaccine is developed from a highly weakened strain of the viruses that will trigger immune responses but won’t give you the virus.

We know that some people hate needles, but the transdermal needle can barely be felt. And people now have the option of a nasal vaccine, which sidesteps needles altogether.

And cost shouldn’t be a significant barrier for most. The vaccine is covered by Medicare Part B and some insurance plans. But even without coverage, the shot typically ranges from only about $25 in public health clinics to about $30 in pharmacies.

Again, this isn’t just a personal decision. As more people get immunized, the chances of spreading the disease diminish for all.

Getting vaccinated is safe, virtually painless and cheap. Get the shot before the flu gets you.

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