Flu facts

This year’s flu vaccine includes protection against three strains, H1N1, H3N2 and influenza Type B. For more, go to www.cdc.govManufacturers are expected to make about 135 million doses of flu vaccine this year, including four different forms:The traditional flu shot is for all ages and people with high-risk health conditions.FluMist, a nasal spray, 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 — which includes a skin-deep prick instead of the usual inch-long needle — is available for 18- to 64-year-olds.Medicare Part B and some insurance plans cover the cost of flu vaccines. Otherwise, the cost is nominal, somewhere between $25 at health clinics and $30 at drugstore chains.Nationally, 67 percent of health care workers, nearly a third of teenagers and 47 percent of pregnant women received vaccinations last year.In the Charleston area, specifically Region 7 of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, flu clinics opened this week. DHEC has been getting 50-70 calls per week to set up appointments.DHEC Region 7 has been vaccinating local schoolchildren already, performing about 2,000 vaccinations per week. Rate of parental consents is 20 percent. Workers expect to finish in Charleston County School District on Oct. 25 and start Berkeley County School District on Oct. 29.To get updates on flu activity in South Carolina, go to www.scdhec.gov/flu/flu-activity-surveillance.htm.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Despite last year’s relatively mild flu season, Lowcountry pharmacists are reporting steady requests for vaccinations so far this fall.

Flu risk groups

Children ages six months to 5 years.People age 50 or older, particularly seniors age 65 and older. People with chronic medical conditions, such as asthma, and who have suppressed immune systems.Women who are pregnant or expect to be during flu season.Children who are six months to 18 years old and receiving long-term aspirin therapy.Residents of nursing homes or chronic-care facilities.American Indians and natives of Alaska.People who are morbidly obese (body mass index of 40 or higher)Health care providers.Parents and caregivers of children age 5 and younger, or adults age 50 and older, or people with medical conditions that put them at higher risk for severe complications of flu.For more information on local clinics, go to www.scdhec.gov/flu.

When asked how many vaccinations, Walgreens’ pharmacy manager Denise Walsh simply said “a ton.”

“It (vaccine requests) seems heavier this year, which is great because the vaccine takes about two weeks to kick in,” said Walsh, who recently transferred from Summerville to Georgetown.

Walsh said the interest in vaccinations is good because flu seasons can be unpredictable and the more who are vaccinated, the less the flu can spread throughout the population.

“My advice to people is to just get it done. The last thing you want to do is to be really sick for up to two weeks. These days, most people can’t afford to be sick that long.”

Flu vaccinations — which come in four different forms this year — have been available since early August, but public health officials are hoping that people will heed the call as the holiday season approaches, which leads into the typical peak flu season months in January and February.

Last year’s mild flu season was in stark contrast to the 2009-10 season when the H1N1 “swine” flu pandemic created early vaccine shortages, dire warnings from public health officials, extensive media coverage and public concern that ranged from panic and confusion to conspiracy theories.

Don’t hedge bets

With the inclusion of H1N1 in seasonal flu vaccines, the flu has been more controlled. And currently, the flu status throughout South Carolina is considered “sporadic.”

But every season is different, and government health officials are urging the public not to be complacent.

Dr. Linda Bell, director of clinical services for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, said last year’s flu season was mild and that it may have been because of effective coverage of vaccines.

“When the flu doesn’t get a lot of media coverage, people maybe think the threat that doesn’t remain. But it does. For people who are at higher risk of complications, it should always be an issue,” Bell said. “No matter how severe a flu season is, certain individuals are always at risk of having complications, if they get the flu.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines those risk groups as young children, ages six months to 5 years, people ages 50 and older, those with chronic medical conditions such as asthma, women who are pregnant or expect to be pregnant during flu seasons, residents of nursing homes and more.

The CDC also recommends that health care workers, parents of young children and caregivers who are healthy, also get vaccinated.

New strain, vaccine

Bell added that those who were vaccinated for the flu before last year’s season have little to no resistance left. Also, this year’s vaccine has new strains — including one from the harsher H3N2 family — that were not included in last year’s vaccine.

While flu specialists can’t say how bad this winter’s flu season might be because strains evolve, CDC flu specialist Dr. Daniel Jernigan told The Associated Press he’s “pretty confident that this year will be a more traditional flu season” compared to last year.

Jernigan added that many people have not been exposed to the new H3N2 and should get vaccinated.

The vaccine is covered by Medicare Part B and some insurance plans. The cost typically ranges from $25 in public health clinics to about $30 in drug stores.

Types of vaccines

The H3N2 strains aren’t the only new twist to this year’s flu vaccinations. Now, there are four different forms of vaccine:

The traditional flu shot administered by needle for anyone age six months or older.

The intradermal flu shot, featuring a shorter, thinner needle for people ages 18-64.

The flu nasal spray for people ages 2-49.

The higher-dose flu shot for people age 65 and older.

Regarding the latter, DHEC’s Bell urges seniors to ask for the higher-dose vaccine because “I’m not sure how many health care providers are aware that this formulation is more beneficial for older adults.”

“Older adults don’t respond to the (traditional) vaccine as well, so this high-dose variation is better, because they get stronger immunity from it,” said Bell.

Meanwhile, Bell said the nasal mist is recommended for people who do not have an underlying medical condition or risk factor and are otherwise healthy.

“The main difference is that it is developed from a weakened strain of the viruses and you don’t have to get a shot, which we know some people don’t like to get.”