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Health officials say it's time to get flu vaccines, but how many Floridians will listen?

Besa Hoxhalli, an executive assistant manager at Walgreens, receives her flu shot from pharmacist Quynh Pham recently. “Might as well get it now,” Hoxhalli said, “instead of waiting.”

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

Besa Hoxhalli, an executive assistant manager at Walgreens, receives her flu shot from pharmacist Quynh Pham recently. “Might as well get it now,” Hoxhalli said, “instead of waiting.”

Temperatures are still soaring and storms are still swirling around the Atlantic, but health officials already are saying it's time to get ready for flu season.

Physicians offices and retail pharmacies including CVS, Walgreens and Target are offering flu vaccines, and local public health departments will begin administering them in the coming weeks.

The vaccine push comes as the state reported Tuesday that an 80-year-old woman from Tavares, in Lake County, recently died of the H1N1 flu virus, better known as swine flu. It wasn't known whether she acquired the virus in Florida or on a recent trip to California.

H1N1, which reached pandemic levels in 2009, is one of the strains that this year's flu vaccine protects against. Plenty of doses will be available — 166 million, which is about 9 million more than last year. For many people, the shots are covered by their health insurance, and for others the price is low — about $25 for an injection that could save you from days of misery or worse. Every year, flu kills thousands of Americans.

Yet flu vaccines are a hard sell. Only 42.8 percent of Americans, and 36.6 percent of Floridians, were vaccinated for the 2010-11 flu season, just a slight increase from the previous year.

One challenge is the many myths about flu vaccines, said Charles Alexander, chief of the Bureau of Immunization for the Florida Department of Health.

The biggest myth is that the vaccine somehow causes the flu. "It's such a strong misconception that it's hard to break," Alexander said.

"We still hear it a lot," agreed Margaret Ewen, who heads the immunization program at the Hillsborough County Health Department. "We need the education out there."

Injected flu shots contain a dead virus, which can't infect you. And while the nasal form of the vaccine contains a live virus, the parts of the virus that can make people sick have been removed.

Another challenge: This year's flu vaccine is exactly the same as last year's, which might make people think they don't need another shot.

The vaccine will protect against the same three flu strains. But unlike with some vaccines, immunity from a flu shot fades over time and requires an annual booster, say officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The bottom line is, we really do encourage people to get vaccinated each and every year," said Tom Skinner, a CDC spokesman.

Nearly everyone older than 6 months is encouraged to get vaccinated, but it's especially important for certain people, officials say. Pregnant women, children ages 6 months to 5 years, adults 50 and older, people with chronic medical conditions, health care workers and residents of nursing homes or other long-term care facilities particularly need the protection either because their own immune systems are compromised, or because getting flu could be more serious for them.

Children 8 and younger who have never had a flu shot will need two doses. People older than 65 can opt for a new, high-dose form of the vaccine.

A few people should not get the vaccine. Those include children younger than 6 months, people allergic to chicken eggs and people who have had a previous severe reaction to a flu vaccine.

Information from the Associated Press was used. Richard Martin can be reached at rmartin@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3322.

Health officials say it's time to get flu vaccines, but how many Floridians will listen? 08/31/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 31, 2011 9:29pm]
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