By LAURAN NEERGAARD, AP Medical Writer
Doctors have a message for vaccine-weary Americans: Don’t skip your flu shot this fall; and older people, ask for a special extra-strength vaccine.
After the flu reached historically low levels during the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be ready to make a comeback. The main clue: a nasty flu season has just ended in Australia.
While there is no way to predict whether the US will be as affected, “last year we went into flu season not knowing if the flu was present or not. This year we know the flu is back,” said influenza specialist Richard Webby of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.
Annual flu shots are recommended starting with babies 6 months of age. The flu is most dangerous for people over 65, young children, pregnant women, and people with certain health problems, including heart and lung disease.
RENEWED OUTLETS FOR SENIOR
As people age, their immune systems do not respond as strongly to standard flu vaccination. This year, people over the age of 65 are urged to get a special rate for extra protection.
There are three options. Fluzone High-Dose and Flublok contain higher doses of the main anti-flu ingredient. The other option is Fluad Adjuvanted, which has a regular dose but contains a special ingredient that helps boost a person’s immune response.
Older people may ask which type their doctor carries. But most flu shots are given at pharmacies, and some pharmacy websites, like CVS, automatically direct people to places that offer senior doses if their date of birth shows they qualify.
Webby advised making sure older relatives and friends know about senior immunizations, in case they aren’t told when they seek the shot.
“They should at least ask, ‘Do you have the injections that are best for me?’” Webby said. “The bottom line is that they work better” for this age group.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, if a place doesn’t have the specific doses for seniors, it’s better to get a standard flu shot than to skip vaccination.
All flu shots in the US, including the types for people under 65, are “quadrivalent,” meaning they protect against four different flu strains. Younger people also have options, including shots for those with egg allergies and a nasal spray version called FluMist.
WHY FLU EXPERTS ARE ON ALERT
Australia just experienced its worst flu season in five years and what happens in southern hemisphere winters often foreshadows what northern countries can expect, said Dr. Andrew Pekosz of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
And people have largely abandoned the masking and distancing precautions that earlier in the pandemic also helped prevent the spread of other respiratory viruses like the flu.
“This poses a risk especially to young children who may not have had much or no prior exposure to influenza viruses prior to this season,” Pekosz added.
“This year we’re going to have a true flu season like we saw before the pandemic,” said Dr. Jason Newland, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Washington University in St. Louis.
He said children’s hospitals are already seeing an unusual early rise in other respiratory infections, including RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, and he fears the flu will also arrive earlier than usual, as it has in Australia.
The CDC recommends a flu shot by the end of October, but says they can be given at any time during flu season. Protection takes approximately two weeks to establish.
The United States expects between 173 and 183 million doses this year. And yes, you can get a flu shot and an updated COVID-19 booster at the same time, one in each arm to lessen pain.
The companies that make the two most widely used COVID-19 vaccines are now testing flu shots made with the same technology. One reason: When influenza mutates, recipes for so-called mRNA vaccines could be updated more quickly than current flu shots, most of which are made by growing influenza viruses in chicken eggs.
Pfizer and its partner BioNTech are recruiting 25,000 healthy adults in the US to receive their experimental flu vaccine or a regular flu shot, to see how effective the new approach is this flu season.
Rival Moderna tested its version on some 6,000 people in Australia, Argentina and other countries during the southern hemisphere flu season and is awaiting the results.
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