State offers free flu shots Saturday

HARTFORD -- Connecticut's Department of Public Health will hold a State Flu Vaccination Day on Saturday.

Flu season is expected to hit its peak in Connecticut in the next few weeks, and all indications are that it’s going to be a bad one. It’s not helping that reports are swirling that this year’s flu shot is only 10 percent effective.

Dr. Michael White of the UConn School of Pharmacy said that number is true, but it lacks context.

“A lot of people have been kicking around this 10 percent effectiveness number. That was from the southern hemisphere,” he said, “it looks like we’re doing a little better here. In the northern hemisphere, when you look at all of the viruses than can cause flu this year, we’re looking at 40 percent effectiveness, and that includes the H3N2.”

White said the standard flu shot is rarely more than 50 percent effective in a given year, and it also needs to be re-administered each year because the body considered the flu virus only serious enough to warrant giving 10-11 months of protection at a time. That may be for the best, because all flu strains mutate so quickly that one year’s vaccine may not work against the following year’s strain.

“The one that causes the most severe flu is the H3N2,” Dr. White said, “the problem is that the H3N2 is more likely to mutate over the course of time than some of the different forms … so you don’t get as close of a copy with H3N2 as you do with some of the others.”

White said the H3N2 strain evolves so rapidly that – by the time it infects you - it may have changed substantially from the strain included in the current year’s vaccine.

If you do get the flu, though, there is a medication that can help. It’s called Tamiflu.

“It could help to prevent those longer term adverse effects like bronchitis, pneumonia, and even death, especially in at-risk people,” said White.

The key is to take Tamiflu within two days of getting symptoms, but that can be a challenge. That early in the progression of the sickness, the flu can look like merely a bad cold, as they both cause cough and runny nose. White said there are other symptoms that you should look for to know it’s the flu.

“With the flu, you’ll also have significant body aches, and you’ll have a very high fever, and the cough will usually be much more severe than what you usually get when you get a cold,” he said.