Since August, bright neon signs have popped up in the parking lots of Casper supermarkets and pharmacies: “Flu shots here today!”
Not so fast, says Dr. Mark Dowell, an infectious disease doctor at Wyoming Medical Center and Rocky Mountain Infectious Diseases. Getting flu shots this early probably won’t protect you against Wyoming’s typically late-starting flu season.
As we age, it’s less effective anyway. So if someone who is 65 years old gets a flu shot too early, they may not have any protection when the actual flu season hits.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does recommend starting the vaccinations now, local factors should influence the timing, said Dowell, who also serves as Natrona County’s Health Officer.
“When you apply our local flu patterns over the last – well, I’ve been here 21 years – it doesn’t make sense to start giving flu shots this early. At Wyoming Medical Center, we are recommending that we start flu shots on Oct. 1 and not earlier,” he said.
Wyoming’s flu season doesn’t generally start until January. In the last several years, our flu seasons have started as late as February, March or April. The flu shot is good for four to six months, but its effectiveness decreases over time. Therefore, people who have already gotten their flu shot will probably not have the strongest immunity by the time Wyoming’s flu season rolls around.
“As we age, it’s less effective anyway. So if someone who is 65 years old gets a flu shot too early, they may not have any protection when the actual flu season hits,” Dowell said.
What does this year’s shot protect against?
Each year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention selects three flu strains most likely to cause illness in the coming season. Each of those goes into the flu shot.
This year, one of the strains in the shot is the H1N1 virus, Wyoming Medical Center nurse practitioner d’Ann Miller said. That strain caused widespread sickness and some deaths in 2009, including in Casper.
“We are predicting once again H1N1 could be around and we are protecting once again against it,” Miller said. Unlike other flu strains that typically infect the very young and very old more frequently, H1N1 hit young adults the hardest.
Who should get a flu shot?
The CDC recommends that everyone six months and older get a flu shot, particularly people who are very young or very old or who may suffer from other chronic illnesses.
“Pregnant women can get the flu shot, and they are also at higher risk if they get the flu because they have two lives at stake,” Miller said.
“It’s very important to get the shot because we shed the virus before we even know that we are sick.”
When should I get the shot?
In October or November, but not before if you live in Wyoming, Dr. Dowell said.
The shot lasts between four to six months, but is strongest after two to four weeks. Its effectiveness decreases with time after that first 2- to 4-week period when your body is building its immunity. Wyoming Medical Center requires all 1,300 employees to get flu shots and will administer them between Oct. 1 and Nov. 20.
If you put off getting the shot until December, you should still get one. If the season comes in late January or in February, March or April like it has the last several years, you’ll still be protected.
Why would businesses offer the shot August and September if it likely won’t be effective when our flu season rolls around?
“I think it’s a market-driven issue,” Dowell said. “I really don’t like it. I don’t want to take business away from the retail areas, but I think they could stall a little bit.”
What if I got my flu shot in August? Should I get another one?
No. There’s no data to show that it would increase your protection. Plus, getting two flu shots so closely together could increase the chance of adverse side effects such as a sore arm or fever.
“It’s not worth it and it’s never been proven that a second shot would actually protect you more in a particular season,” Dowell said.
“Just wait it out and live your life. Take the same preventative measures that you always take in the winter against influenza: Cover your face if you are coughing, wash your hands and be smart about it. That hasn’t changed.
“Just don’t get your shot so early next year. Wait until October. “
While Wyoming Medical Center recommends that people wait until October or November to get their flu shots, the important thing is still that you get them. Here are a few options on getting yours:
* Women’s Expo: Wyoming Medical Center will give flu shots to the first 100 visitors to its booth at the Women’s Expo Oct. 4-5 at the Casper Events Center. Adult shots will be administered for the discounted price of $28. The WMC will also be giving free health screenings and health fair screens for discounted prices.
* Sage Primary Care clinic: Sage Primary Care, 1020 S. Conwell St., will provide a flu shot clinic for non-Sage patients from 8 a.m. to noon Oct. 12. Cost is $28. Sage patients can ask for the shot at scheduled appointments.
* Casper-Natrona County Health Department public clinics: Public flu immunizations for people ages 6 and older will be 2:45 to 6:45 p.m. Oct. 14, Oct. 21, Oct. 28, Nov. 4, Nov. 18, Nov. 25 and Dec. 2 (depending on vaccine availability) at the Casper Senior Citizen’s Center, 1831 E. Fourth St. Cost is $20.