published Wednesday, October 17th, 2012

As flu season approaches, officials urge vaccinations

Debbie Chesnutt, left, administers a flu shot to Richard Ridley while Clarinda Ridley receives her shot from Gail Cloer at a drive-by flu shot clinic hosted by the North Georgia Health District at the Murray County Recreation Center in Chatsworth, Ga., on Tuesday.
Debbie Chesnutt, left, administers a flu shot to Richard Ridley while Clarinda Ridley receives her shot from Gail Cloer at a drive-by flu shot clinic hosted by the North Georgia Health District at the Murray County Recreation Center in Chatsworth, Ga., on Tuesday.
Photo by Alyson Wright.

QUICK VACCINATION FACTS

Who needs the vaccine: Everyone who is at least 6 months of age should get a flu vaccine. People who are at high risk of developing serious complications from the flu include people with certain medical conditions, pregnant women and people 65 or older.

Flu season: Influenza seasons are unpredictable and can begin as early as October.

How long does it take to work? It takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies to develop in the body and provide protection against the flu.

Vaccine availability: For the 2012-2013 season, manufacturers have projected that they will produce between 146 million and 149 million doses of flu vaccine. During 2011-2012, 132.8 million doses of flu vaccine were distributed in the United States.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Flu vaccination coverage estimates

2011-2012 season // 2010-2011 season // 2009-2010 season

Tennessee 47 percent // 48 percent // 44 percent

Georgia 39 percent // 42 percent // 37 percent

Alabama 42 percent 42 percent // 40 percent

United States 42 percent // 43 percent 41 percent

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

WHERE TO GET IT

Flu vaccines are available at local health departments, most pharmacies, health care clinics and doctor's offices. Many insurance plans cover the cost of the vaccine. Health departments may offer reduced costs for uninsured patients.

It's that wonderful time of the year again for chilly mornings, crisp apples, colorful leaves -- and your flu vaccine.

With flu season officially kicking off around the beginning of October, local health departments and doctors' offices have been sticking their patients for weeks. Even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported only minimal flu activity across the country during its first week of tracking numbers, local officials say it is important to get that vaccine as soon as possible.

"It's the single best way to protect yourself and the people you care about," said Nettie Gerstle, communicable disease program manager at the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department.

The flu season is unpredictable and varies from season to season, but it usually begins in October and ends in May, commonly peaking in January or February. A vaccination takes about two weeks to become effective, so it is best to get one early, Gerstle said.

These days, flu vaccines are more widely available than ever and can be found at most pharmacies and health departments, in addition to clinics and doctors' offices. Officials at local health departments say they have seen the number of people coming in for vaccines dropping because so many more places are offering them, but they don't mind.

"Get one at whatever place is easiest for you," Gerstle said.

In the last three years, Tennesseans got more flu vaccines than the national average, with almost half the state vaccinated, according to CDC estimates.

Alabama and Georgia ranked slightly slower, hovering around the national average of just over 40 percent.

Jennifer King, spokeswoman for the North Georgia Health District, said its six-county area has held drive-through flu clinics for about five years in hopes of raising awareness and encouraging more people to get their vaccinations.

This year, officials do not expect a shortage of vaccines, but they worry that people may be less likely to get a shot after last year's unusually mild flu season.

The mild winter, flu viruses similar to previous flu seasons and a good match between flu vaccines and flu types may have contributed to the low numbers, CDC officials said in a report. More people are also covered by vaccinations, the report noted.

Gerstle said it is important to remember that, even if you aren't easily susceptible to flu, you may pass it on to small children, the elderly and others who have lower immunity.

And a mild season last year is no indication that this year will be similar.

"It is a little bit early to know what kind of season we are looking at, so it is good to be covered," she said.

about Mariann Martin...

Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...

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