This year's flu vaccine guards against new strains

By Lauran Neergaard

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Sept. 27 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011 photo, George Eberhardt, 107, of Chester, NJ. is given his annual flu shot by nurse Bettie Donnelly in Mendham, N.J. Babies and toddlers were more likely to get the flu vaccine last year than people over 65. Both groups are more vulnerable to flu than other age groups. Government data released Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012 also showed a wide range of vaccine protection across the country.

Mel Evans, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

WASHINGTON — Time to get your flu vaccine — and a surprising new report shows babies and toddlers seem to be getting protected better than the rest of us.

Last year's flu shot won't shield you this year: Two new strains of influenza have begun circling the globe, and the updated vaccine appears to work well against them, government officials said Thursday.

Just because last year was the mildest flu season on record doesn't mean the virus might not bounce back to its usual ferocity this winter.

"People cannot become complacent this year," said Dr. Howard Koh, assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, who received his own flu shot Thursday.

A yearly vaccination now is recommended for nearly everybody, but new figures released Thursday show that last year 52 percent of children and just 39 percent of adults were immunized.

Best protected: Three-quarters of tots ages 6 months to 23 months were vaccinated. That's a significant jump from the previous year, when 68 percent of those youngsters were immunized.

But even though seniors are at especially high risk of severe illness or death if they catch the flu, just 66 percent of them were immunized, a number that has been slowly dropping for several years.

Older adults got a little lost in the recent public health push to explain that flu vaccine benefits all ages — and it's time to target them again, said Dr. Daniel Jernigan, a flu specialist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In contrast, child deaths from flu have made headlines in recent years — the U.S. counted 34 pediatric deaths last year — raising parents' awareness of the risk, he said.

The only ones who shouldn't get vaccinated: babies younger than 6 months and people with severe allergies to the eggs used to make the vaccine.

Flu specialists can't say how bad this winter's flu season might be. Influenza strains constantly evolve, and some cause more illness than others.

But strains from the H3N2 family tend to be harsher than some other flu types, and a new H3N2 strain is included in this year's vaccine because it is circulating in parts of the world.

Because of that strain, "I am pretty confident that this year will be a more traditional flu season" than last year, CDC's Jernigan told The Associated Press. "People won't have had any real exposure to that."

Only one ingredient in this year's flu vaccine was retained from last year's, protection against the H1N1 strain that caused the 2009 swine flu pandemic and has been the main kind of influenza circulating since. Also new in this year's shot is protection against a different Type B strain.

Other trends the CDC spotted last year:

—Roughly a third of teenagers got a flu vaccine.

—So did 45 percent of high-risk young and middle-aged adults, those who are particularly vulnerable to flu because they also have asthma, diabetes or any of a list of other health conditions.

—About 47 percent of pregnant women were vaccinated. Women have five times the risk of severe illness if they catch the flu when they're pregnant, and they can require hospitalization and suffer preterm labor as a result. Vaccination not only protects them, but recent research shows it also provides some protection to their newborns as well.

Vaccination rates vary widely among states, too. Nevada vaccinates a third of people who are eligible, while South Dakota reaches 51 percent. In Iowa, 76 percent of seniors get their flu shot, compared to half in Alaska. In Rhode Island, 74 percent of children are vaccinated, compared to 39 percent in Alaska.

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