October

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It’s time to get your flu shot

Published on Friday, October 1, 2021

By: Karen Bascom, kbascom@umc.edu

It’s that time of year again: football, falling leaves, and flu shots.

Influenza vaccines are now available at pharmacies, public health offices, clinics and hospitals across the United States. The University of Mississippi Medical Center encourages everyone ages six months and older to receive a flu vaccine this year, and to get it early.

While the United States avoided a “twindemic” last year – a period of both high influenza and COVID-19 activity – doctors are not sure we will be as fortunate this year.

Portrait of Dr Bhagyashri Navalkele
Navalkele

One reason flu activity was historically low last year was because of mask wearing and social distancing. Local and state regulations set in place to limit SARS-CoV-2 transmission worked for other airborne diseases, said Dr. Bhagyashri Navalkele, medical director for infection control and prevention at UMMC. Few places have the same guidelines this year.

“Almost everybody is wondering how this flu season is going to be, but that is very hard to predict,” Navalkele said.

The United States sees most of its influenza activity between October and May. Currently, Navalkele says influenza-like illness cases are minimal in Mississippi and across the southeast, the lowest classification the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention use in its weekly tracking. However, other states are already seeing low or moderate flu activity.

In Mississippi, “our case numbers tend to rise during and after the holiday season, between December and February,” Navalkele said. This means people should try to receive their flu vaccines at least two weeks ahead of this period. She recommends getting an immunization prior to the end of October to ensure protection.

Portrait of Dr. Josie Bidwell
Bidwell

Dr. Josie Bidwell, associate professor of preventive medicine and clinical director of Student Employee Health at UMMC, said the Medical Center started administering flu vaccines to students and employees on September 20.

While at a vaccine pop-up event that first day, “Somebody said “is it not too early to get the flu vaccine?” Bidwell said.

Portrait of Dr Paul Byers
Byers

The short answer is no, Bidwell said in a conversation with Dr. Paul Byers, chief epidemiologist at the Mississippi State Department of Health on Southern Remedy last month.

“You want to give the vaccine early enough so that people have time to develop immunity against infection,” Byers said. “You also want to balance that against making sure that they have protection that extends long enough through the potential length of the flu season.”

The World Health Organization and the CDC each have annual planning sessions where they review case data from previous years and watch trends already emerging in the current season. Abnormally low global flu activity presented some challenges, Navalkele said, but experts decided to encourage stronger protection than usual.

“This season the CDC is being more cautious and recommending a quadrivalent vaccine for all people, which protects against four strains of flu,” Navalkele said.

Most flu vaccines from previous years are trivalent, or protect against three strains of flu. The 2021-2022 version contains two influenza A and two influenza B inactivated, or killed, virus strains. Including multiple strains decreases the chance that you develop successive or even concurrent flu infections, Bidwell said.

“People often think once they have had flu once in a season that they are done, but you can have flu A and then later have flu B,” Bidwell said. “I have even seen a couple folks who have had both at the same time.”

Like most years, there is also an adjuvanted quadrivalent vaccine recommended for adults age 65 or older, known as FLUAD. This vaccine contains an oil-based additive that promotes a stronger immune response and better protection against the virus. However, Navalkele says if your preferred clinic does not have this formulation on-hand at your appointment, it is fine to receive the standard one.

“You do not want to delay your vaccination,” she said.

Flu vaccines decrease outpatient visits, hospitalizations and deaths attributed to influenza. Navalkele said these vaccines prevent thousands of deaths and many more cases each year.

“The real benefit of the flu vaccine is the reduction of those severe complications,” Byers said.

This year, public health guidance says you can receive a flu shot and a first, second, or booster dose of a COVID-19 vaccine on the same day or days apart. Last year, experts encouraged people to wait at least 14 days between receiving a flu vaccine and a COVID-19 vaccine, which first became available in December 2020.

“It’s not that we changed our mind, it’s that we have better science,” Bidwell said. “As science has continued to evolve and we get answers, we update guidelines.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic, “We saw how quickly a health care system can really collapse,” and become overwhelmed with patients, Navalkele said. High flu vaccine uptake amongst the public is going to play an important role in preventing that from happening again, she added.

“A flu vaccine is going to protect you, protects others, and help lessen the burden on the health care system,” she said.

For the most up-to-date information on the 2021-2022 influenza season and where to find a flu shot near you, visit the CDC or MSDH websites.


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