Health experts say new options for flu shots could make it easier to get vaccinated this year and do a better job of keeping the illness away.
New for this year are shots and nasal sprays offering protection against a greater number of flu-virus strains. A new vaccine is available for people with severe allergies to eggs, which are used in traditional flu-vaccination production. And for people afraid of hypodermic needles, a micro-needle, available since last year, injects vaccine with just a skin prick.
Although flu season may seem far off, health experts say now is a good time to get vaccinated. It takes the body a couple of weeks to get antibody production going, making a vaccine effective.
"Ideally we'd like to be able to say to people, 'Get vaccinated a couple of weeks before the flu virus starts circulating in your community.' But we never know when that's going to happen," said Lisa Grohskopf, a medical officer at the National Center for Immunizations and Respiratory Diseases, part of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Doctors recommend that people 6 months of age and older get vaccinated for influenza, but compliance rates often are low. In the 2011-2012 flu season, for example, the latest year for which CDC data are available, about 42 percent of people got a vaccine, including just over half of children 6 months to 17 years old. Public-health officials would like to see the vast majority of people immunized for influenza each year. Vaccination is the best way to reduce the chances a person will get seasonal flu and lessen the chance of spreading it to others, the CDC says.
Flu vaccines have traditionally offered protection against three kinds of viruses—two varieties of Type A viruses and one variety of Type B. This year, some vaccines contain a second variety of Type B virus, and some experts expect this so-called quadrivalent vaccine will offer protection against the vast majority of Type B influenza infections. As much as 20 percent of the population gets the flu each year, which can lead to hospitalization and death especially among older people and those with weakened immune systems.
Although Type A viruses cause the most severe flu symptoms, children are especially vulnerable to Type B strains, said Robert Jacobson, medical director for the Employee and Community Health Immunization Program at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Nasal-spray vaccinations, which are popular for use with children, are expected to contain quadrivalent vaccines, according to the CDC. But supplies of quadrivalent vaccines, approved for use this year by the Food and Drug Administration, are expected to be limited in the injectable form.
Advisers for the World Health Organization each year forecast which types of viruses will be the most problematic in the following flu season, and the FDA decides for the U.S. which virus strains should be included for vaccination. This gives manufacturers time to produce vaccines.
But predicting which viruses will be dominant months ahead of when they are needed can be a gamble. Influenza viruses change from year to year, or even within the course of a flu season. In six of the last dozen or so years, the Type B virus strain included in most vaccines ended up not matching the most common Type B strain causing infection, said Henry Bernstein, a professor of pediatrics at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine in Hempstead, N.Y.