By Michaela Gibson Morris
TUPELO – It’s not cold enough for coats and sweaters yet, but it isn’t too early to think about the flu.
“We’re encouraging everyone to get flu vaccine as soon as possible,” said Mississippi state epidemiologist Dr. Thomas Dobbs.
Local pharmacies are already advertising the vaccines. The county health departments are in the process of stocking up and should be ready to go by mid-October. Due to a shipping problem, North Mississippi Medical Center Community Health had to cancel the annual Live Well Health Fair, but organizers hope to reschedule the free flu immunizations for later this month if supplies allow.
Traditionally the flu season has been focused in January and February in Mississippi and the rest of the United States. Last year, it got rolling by November, Dobbs said.
It’s possible to catch the flu anytime of year, but there already seems to be a seasonal uptick in patients that come in with rapid-onset of fever, chills, aches, runny nose and watery eyes – influenza’s most common symptoms.
“To my knowledge, we haven’t had any positives here,” as of last week, said nurse practitioner Kenny Cook, who sees patients at Tupelo’s Med-Serve. “Within the system, there’s been several positives.”
Flu viruses are slippery and hard to predict. Public health officials watch what’s happening internationally, especially in the southern hemisphere where the winter, and the flu season, are winding down.
“There’s nothing that seems too out of the ordinary with seasonal flu,” Dobbs said, noting that can change quickly.
This year, there’s an arsenal of flu vaccines from which to choose.
“There are several new additions,” Dobbs said. “It’s going to be quite a selection.”
The Centers for Disease Control just recommends that nearly everyone older than six months receive an annual flu vaccine, but they don’t recommend one vaccine over another.
The standard trivalent flu shot that protects against three different strains of the influenza virus will be the most widely available – this is the primary vaccine that North Mississippi Medical Clinics will have available. It can be given to the broadest group of people – anyone ages six months and up.
Additionally this year, there is a quadrivalent vaccine which protects against four strains. It adds an additional influenza B virus, so it covers two A viruses and two B viruses.
“For the past years, it’s been apparent that there’s more than one B virus circulating,” Dobbs said. “It gives you added breadth of coverage.”
Folks over 65 may want to consider a high dose trivalent shot that produces a stronger immune response. Older folks often have a less robust immune response to the standard flu vaccine.
Adults who aren’t big on needles may appreciate the new intradermal trivalent shot. It uses a smaller needle and less vaccine. Staying out of the muscle makes the shot less painful for many people.
“It goes right into the skin,” Dobbs said.
For healthy children, the FluMist nasal vaccine is often a good choice. It covers four strains, and is available to healthy children and adults ages 2 to 49 who have no respiratory or immune system problems.
“The Flu Mist quadrivalent seems to be more effective for children,” Dobbs said, because the weakened flu virus in the vaccine prompts a very strong immune response. It also has the bonus of no needles.
For adults with severe egg allergies who’ve had to pass on flu vaccines, this year brings a trivalent egg-free vaccine – FluBlok. It’s approved for people ages 18 to 49.
Traditionally the flu vaccine has been manufactured with eggs as the base of the production. The FluBlok is manufactured using a cell-based process that doesn’t use eggs.
That helps folks who have severe allergies who can’t tolerate even the minuscule amounts of egg in the vaccine. But it also expands the manufacturing capability for vaccines because some strains of the flu virus have proven to be difficult to grow with the egg-based process.
“Hopefully it will give us more flexibility in developing new vaccines more quickly,” Dobbs said.
The Mississippi State Department of Health will have most versions of the flu vaccine available at county health departments, but it was not able to order the FluBlok.
The CDC’s flu vaccine finder lists the FluBlok as being offered through Walgreen’s pharmacies locally.