With many emergency rooms already overcrowded, health experts are urging the public to shake off bad memories of last year's flu shot fiasco and get vaccinated before the influenza virus peaks.
Unlike last year, there should be plenty of vaccine on hand, although some clinics are still waiting on shipments. The virus usually doesn't spread widely until the coldest months of the year, when people are indoors the most, passing cold viruses and other infectious ailments.
Right now, flu shots are being recommended only for those at increased risk of catching or transmitting the disease, such as older adults and day care workers. After Oct. 24, anyone will be eligible for vaccination, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last year, this was delayed by several months, and many healthy adults did not get vaccinated.
Supply was severely limited at the start of the flu season last year when Chiron Corporation, a major manufacturer of flu shots, was forced to shut down a manufacturing plant. Those most in the need — the elderly and the chronically ill — waited in long lines outside clinics for their shots.
But by the end of winter, clinics were well-stocked with vaccines. It was too late — the threat of the virus had waned, and many of those shots went unused. The flu shot must be updated every year to include more strains of the virus, which crop up periodically.
This year's apparent strong public interest is welcome news to Dr. Rick Blum, an emergency medicine physician.
"We have a situation in the country where emergency departments are pretty crowded or at or over capacity," said Blum, who practices medicine in West Virginia and is president of the American College of Emergency Physicians. "Anything that adds to the usual volume that we see is a pretty big deal for us. Even a moderately bad flu season would have a significant impact on the emergency departments of the country."
The risk can be limited by widespread vaccination, because if enough people get a flu shot, the entire population is protected even if some people are not vaccinated.
For those who do become infected, it's important to see a doctor or go to the emergency department, said Dr. Robert Fry, an emergency medicine physician in Texarkana, Texas. Receiving a prompt dose of an antiviral medication can weaken the virus' effect.
And, for those not sure if they have the flu bug, it's always better to be safe than sorry, Blum said, even if it requires a long hospital wait.
"We have a great belief in the patient being able to determine what constitutes an emergency," Blum said.
Despite vaccination efforts, the flu still kills about 30,000 people a year, depending on the severity of the virus, said Fry.