SALT LAKE CITY — You might not know it by the unmistakable sunshine and seasonably hot August weather in Utah, but flu season is right around the corner.
"There's no way for us to know what it will be like, but it is always a good idea to get vaccinated," said Rebecca Ward, a health educator with the Utah Department of Health's Bureau of Epidemiology. "It is the best thing you can do to prevent getting the flu."
Flu shots became available to providers this week and most are still in the process of setting up clinics to give the vaccine shots to patients. But Rite Aid pharmacies throughout the state began giving the shots this week.
"It takes about two weeks to build an immunity, so you want to make sure you've got it before the season starts," said Rite Aid pharmacist Scott Kendall. He said there is nothing available to treat the flu virus and getting vaccinated can either help a person avoid it altogether or at least shorten the duration and lessen the severity of symptoms if influenza is contracted.
The start of influenza season is as unpredictable as the course of the virus, beginning as early as late September and sometimes lasting into May of the following year. Because the virus is continually changing as it comes in contact with other illnesses and strains, the vaccine has to be reformulated every year to maintain its effectiveness.
Experts with the World Health Organization select strains for the current vaccine based on how and where they are spreading, how well the previous vaccine worked to protect against the many varieties of the flu and any new strains being identified. The 2012-13 vaccine contains three strains, two of which originated in swine and another that is native to humans and seals.
Protection from H1N1 is available in the current vaccine, as well as for H3N2, which has recently been detected in pigs at state fairs in Ohio, Indiana and Hawaii, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A single case was confirmed in Weber County in April, but additional cases never presented.
Occasionally, the vaccine doesn't match the current virus, but regardless, Ward said the yearly vaccine offers "pretty good protection."
"Influenza is one of the biggest killers and it affects people of all ages," she said. Individuals need the vaccine to protect themselves, but also those in more vulnerable populations that they may come into contact with.
"People don't realize that the status of their own health factors into how well a vaccine works," she said, adding that those under 6 months of age or older than 65, those who are seriously ill and anyone with a compromised immune system are at higher risk for hospitalization from influenza.
Last year, during the peak of the uncharacteristically mild flu season, nearly two dozen Utahns were hospitalized, according to the Utah Department of Health. In an average year, however, there are 200 to 300 individuals hospitalized from complications of the flu.
More than 132 million doses were administered during the 2011-12 season and manufacturers have projected production of between 146 million and 149 million doses of flu vaccine this year, according to the CDC, which recommends everyone over 6 months be vaccinated every year.
From his perspective, Kendall said manufacturer supplies of the vaccine have not been compromised, as they have been in years past. He said the vaccine is made to last through the duration of the flu season and it can be administered in three different ways, including the shot, a nasal mist and a new, intradermal method that uses air pressure to inject the vaccine with a shorter needle.
As the supply makes its way to Utah, individuals can use the online Vaccination Locator tool to find available locations and/or make appointments to be vaccinated. Other retail pharmacies, much like Rite Aid has already done, will also soon begin to carry the vaccine and shots there can be given on a first-come, first-served basis.
Prices for the vaccine range from $24 to $42, depending on the variety used and the concentration available, and most insurances, including Medicaid Part B, will cover the cost associated with vaccination, according to the CDC.