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Time to get your flu shot, but just one this year

Associated Press | 9/1/2010, 5:24 a.m.

WASHINGTON — It’s flu-shot season already, and for the first time health authorities are urging nearly everyone to get vaccinated. There is even a new high-dose version for people 65 or older.

What a difference a year makes: Crowds lined up for hours for scarce shots during last fall’s swine flu pandemic, when infections peaked well before enough vaccine could be produced. This year, a record vaccine supply is expected — an all-in-one inoculation that now promises protection against that swine flu strain plus two other kinds of influenza.

Shipments began so early that drugstores are offering vaccinations amid their back-to-school sales.

But without last year’s scare factor, the question is how many people will heed the new policy for near-universal vaccination. No more stopping to check if you’re on a high-risk list: A yearly dose is recommended for virtually everyone except babies younger than 6 months — the shot isn’t approved for tots that young — and people with severe allergies to the eggs used to brew it.

“Influenza is serious, and anyone, including healthy people, can get the flu and spread the flu,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Flu vaccines are the best way to protect yourself and those around you.”

The CDC was moving toward that policy even before last year’s pandemic brought home an inescapable fact: The flu virus doesn’t just kill grandparents and babies and people with weak lungs or hearts, although they’re particularly vulnerable. It also can kill healthy pregnant women and 30-somethings. And 5 year olds.

“We were discussing how we were going to go get his Star Wars Halloween costume after he got out of the hospital ... and all of a sudden his eyes lost their focus,” said Serese Marotta of Dayton, Ohio, describing for reporters how her son Joseph, 5, died of swine flu last October before vaccine was available in her community. She urged families to make vaccination a priority.

Here are some questions and answers about flu:

I got vaccinated against both seasonal and that so-called H1N1 flu last year, so why do I need vaccine this year?
It protects against a different strain of the H3N2 influenza family that has cropped up, as well as last year’s swine flu, part of the H1N1 family, and a Type B strain. Every year a different flu vaccine is brewed to match the constantly changing flu strains that circle the globe.

Why is there a new high-dose version for seniors?
Your immune system weakens with age, so it doesn’t respond as actively to a flu shot. Sanofi Pasteur’s Fluzone High-Dose quadruples the standard dose for people 65 and older. This winter, scientists will track if that translates into less illness. Until that proof is in, the CDC says it’s OK to choose either option.

Sanofi is finalizing how much to make, and availability may vary with location. For example, Dr. Marvin Bittner of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Omaha estimates the new shot might benefit one in four seniors and said his center has ordered enough for that population, while other VA clinics aren’t ordering as much.