There’s Still Time to Get a Flu Shot ... but Just Barely!
Deborah Dormady Letham, PhD

There’s Still Time to Get a Flu Shot ... but Just Barely!

The flu is on the rise. You can still shield yourself against circulating strains.

I took the time to get my flu shot early in the season, but if you haven’t done it yet, it is not too late for you to do the same. Flu season typically peaks in February and you can still build up resistance to this year’s strains. The surveillance of strains are often shown by colorful pie charts on world maps, and these pie charts seriously look like clocks or stopwatches to me – time is ticking away…

Both science and society remind us of the importance of vaccination as there are thousands of deaths each year caused by the flu and its complications. This year is shaping up to be one of the nastiest on record. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that at least 9.7 million people have gotten the flu so far this season in the US alone, and 4,800 have died from it.

Recently an influenza expert took the time to teach my laboratory site about the process and advances in making each year’s stockpile of vaccination material. It was well worth my time to learn about the Herculean efforts to prepare sufficient levels of materials in advance. I marveled at the seasonal demands and those folks who rise to the occasion each year to meet them.

It takes time to develop a vaccine that matches the year’s most prevalent strains – the Northern and Southern hemispheres are on different time schedules and get regional preparations. Almost a year in advance, scientists from academia, industry and worldwide government agencies (such as the World Health Organization and CDC) will work together to identify and curate the reference strains that are likely to spread during the next flu season. There are thousands of strains studied and compared in order to reformulate the vaccination for each year. It is a race against time to get sufficient vaccinations to market in late summer, so producers must plan ahead.

Traditional flu vaccines are produced by culturing material in embryonated chicken eggs, which require months of preparation, and millions of eggs, timed just right.

New advances in vaccine manufacturing include culturing virus candidates in pre-established cell cultures, not requiring eggs at all. There are advances in how the material is grown in fermenter farms (giant controlled culture vats) and in harvest, purification and delivery - all processes which scientists have taken time to study in order to deliver with human safety in mind. Logistics – there are always logistics to get these vaccines to that vast number of people.

Even though I don’t work on the flu vaccine directly, as a scientist (and mom) I passed on the educational information to my teen-aged kids, to my friends and family, and to whomever would listen to the science over the skepticism that seems more widespread than the flu bugs. (Really, you cannot get the flu from the flu shot).

I can witness that having some immunity against common strains will also help against the rare strains (like the one that landed me on the couch, feeling contagious like Typhoid Mary a couple years ago). Some immunity is better than no immunity at all.

Personally I had to wait to get over bronchitis before I got my flu shot. When I heard a loudspeaker reminder for a no-cost shot, that would be covered by my insurance, I wheeled my grocery cart over to the pharmacy. Their stock was plentiful and the vaccination took no time at all, if there had been ice cream in my cart I doubt it would have melted.

As a busy mom I had lost track of time, but in the nick of time I recently got my kids vaccinated, too. What is a mom’s Friday night excitement? Flu shot fun! So I took my daughter (home on college break) and my son to the local pharmacy, marveling that I no longer had to bribe teenagers to endure shots. Instead, they listened patiently as I read them all the interesting tidbits off the vaccine packet insert and unpacked the science for them. Being a mom plus scientist – all this was certainly worth my time.

Please talk to your doctor and pharmacists – current epidemiology data (studying the where and when of disease spread) indicate that there is no time to lose.