Public health experts are urging Missourians to get a flu shot ahead of a flu season that could likely arrive earlier and be more severe than last year’s.
The vaccine is the most effective way for people to protect themselves and others in the community from the flu, state health officials said.
“Herd immunity” also can protect at-risk people including the elderly, young children and people who cannot safely receive vaccines, but only if high numbers of people who can receive the shot are immunized.
“The select few who can’t get a flu shot or have weakened immune systems are more prone to getting complications from the flu,” said Michelle Jeon, an assistant professor of pharmacy practice at the St. Louis College of Pharmacy. When people are immunized, “there’s less virus circulating in our community, so [at-risk people] are less likely to get sick.”
However, only 45% of adults received a flu vaccine last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s significantly below the 70% vaccination rate goal established by the federal government.
The flu is particularly dangerous for the elderly, the very young or the sick, as they have suppressed immune symptoms. In the 2018-19 season, 92 Missourians died from flu-related symptoms. The year before, more than 2,000 people died from flu and pneumonia-related causes in Missouri, according to the state health department.
Officials from the state’s Department of Health and Senior Services said last month that they hope last year’s mild season doesn’t give people a false sense that the shot isn’t important.
“While were encouraged last year by lower incidence rates of flu [than the previous year] in Missouri, we cannot let down our guard and skip flu shots, or we may see increased rates of incidence and flu-related deaths in the state,” Dr. Randall Williams, the department's director, said in a press release.
The best predictor of the severity of this year’s flu season is what is happening in the Southern Hemisphere, she said. Australia’s season comes a few months earlier, and it can offer clues about which strains of the virus will be prevalent this winter in the U.S.
In Australia, “It started a bit earlier than what we normally see, and it was pretty severe; we’re anticipating that it might be a difficult flu season,” Jeon said.
Most insured people can receive flu shots at pharmacies or clinics for no out-of-pocket cost, Jeon said. Uninsured people can visit several free vaccination clinics at hospitals and clinics around the region, she said.
Barnes-Jewish hospitals are offering free flu shots through Oct. 9 at Barnes-Jewish Plaza Tower and at the Center for Advanced Medicine. The health system will also hold clinics this weekend at Siteman Cancer Center locations in St. Louis County.
SSM Health is offering free shots on Saturday morning in several locations in the St. Louis region.
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