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How to Beat the Flu This Year

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Flu Shot Q&A, cont.

Keep reading for more expert answers to your flu shot concerns.

Are you fully protected from the flu once you get the vaccine?

Not exactly. Seasonal flu comes in numerous strains, each responding to slightly different antibodies. Every year, scientists worldwide collect flu viruses as part of an effort to predict which strains will hit hardest that winter. The information is sent to the Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization, which select three varieties for the vaccine.

When the forecast is accurate, the vaccine can be extremely protective. One study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that it was almost 90 percent effective for people under age 50. (The figure drops considerably among the elderly, whose weaker immune systems have trouble producing the required antibodies.) Still, it offers no guarantee, especially when the predictions are off, which happens about one year in five. That's why experts also recommend the precautions on the next page.

Is the shot safe for a woman who's trying to have a baby?

Yes. In fact, if you're pregnant or planning to get pregnant during flu season, you should get the shot (but not the inhalable FluMist), experts say. That's because pregnant women's immune systems are weaker, so they're at high risk for the flu -- and for heart and lung complications -- during their second and third trimesters and immediately after they give birth, explains Dr. Hirsch.

Do you have to get the shot from your doctor?

No. In many communities, you can walk into your local health department, drugstore, or even the supermarket in October and November and get a flu shot at special clinics set up there. A doctor or nurse gives the shot; in some states, a pharmacist can also administer it. Lots of businesses offer the vaccine for free to employees; some hospitals do as well. When you do have to pay (typically $15 to $30 for the shot) the cost is often covered by health insurance. Check with your provider. To find out where you can get the vaccine, go to flucliniclocator.org.

Will there be a shortage of the vaccine this year?

No. According to the manufacturers, there will be 100 million doses for the 2006-2007 flu season -- more than ever before.

Is the vaccine safe for everyone?

No. If you have a severe egg allergy, stay away from both the shot and FluMist. "The vaccine is cultivated in chicken eggs, and even though it's purified, there can be a small amount of egg protein in it," explains Dr. Currie. Ditto if you've had a severe reaction to a previous flu shot, which might indicate an allergy.

Also steer clear of the vaccine if you've ever contracted the neurological condition known as Guillain-Barre syndrome within six weeks of getting a flu shot. In the mid 1970s, a special swine-flu vaccine seemed to trigger this disease in a small number of cases. It causes muscle weakness and even paralysis. Although researchers have found no unusual recurrences, they say it's better not to take a chance.

Doesn't the flu vaccine contain mercury, which may be linked to autism in kids?

Some flu shots do have thimerosal, a mercury-containing compound, as a preservative. A few years ago, some of the nation's leading experts reviewed the research and found no evidence that exposure to the vaccine was linked to higher rates of autism in children. However, if you still have a concern, ask your doctor about a thimerosal-free vaccine.

Next:  Flu Fighters

 

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