Doctors say back-to-school plans should include flu shots

Don't wait for flu season to hit — the American Academy of Pediatrics says now is the time to start thinking about flu shots.

The group issued new recommendations Monday urging that all children over the age of six months get a flu shot as soon as it becomes available. Many pediatricians' offices and health clinics will start offering flu shots this month.

Flu outbreaks can happen as early as October, with the number of cases increasing dramatically by December each year. Flu season generally peaks in January, February or March, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last year, a large number of cases came early — about five weeks sooner than average.

Doctors say it's better not to wait until flu season hits full-force to try to protect yourself or your children. A flu shot can cut the risk of illness substantially. Last year, the CDC said the flu vaccine reduced the overall risk of infection by about 60 percent, although the effectiveness rate varies.

A recent study also showed that for people over the age of 40, getting a flu shot may help lower the risk of a heart attack by up to 45 percent.

Despite the benefits, however, the CDC says fewer than half of all Americans get flu shots. Data from the 2010-2011 season shows only about 43 percent of Americans — and about 51 percent of children under the age of 18 — got flu shots.

This year, there are two new options for those considering flu shots. Some vaccines will protect against four different strains of the flu virus, instead of the usual three. The four-strain protection is called a quadrivalent vaccine. It will be available as a shot or in nasal spray form. But public health experts note that the quadrivalent vaccine is not necessarily more effective than the more widely available formulas which protect against three leading strains of the virus.

There is also a new vaccine option for adults who are allergic to eggs.

Traditionally, flu shots have been made from viruses grown in eggs, which could trigger an allergic reaction. The new vaccine, called Flublok, uses a different technique that does not involve eggs. Flublok was approved by the FDA in January for adults ages 18 to 49.

Since 2010, the CDC has recommended flu shots for virtually everyone over the age of six months. Health officials say it's especially important for people in high-risk groups, including children under the age of 5, seniors 65 and over, pregnant women, patients with compromised immune systems, and people who care for those at high risk.

Influenza should not be confused with the common cold. It can be much more serious. Symptoms come on suddenly and include a cough, sore throat, headache, muscle aches, fatigue, and sometimes (but not always) fever. Some people — more often children — also experience vomiting and diarrhea.

During an average flu season, about 36,000 Americans will die of flu-related complications. About 90 percent of those deaths occur in people over the age of 65. Last year, 160 children died from the flu.

The CDC has more information on its website about the flu vaccine.

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