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What you (and your patients) need to know about flu vaccines this year.
October is here, and so is influenza season. The push is on to get as many people vaccinated as possible. This year, the CDC’s rallying cry for flu vaccinations is “Everyone, 6 months and up!”
Pharmacists are front and center in this goal. About 25% of all flu shots are administered by pharmacists, according to John Norton, Director of Public Relations for the NCPA. This is despite the 29% of independent pharmacies that do not administer immunizations, he noted.
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“Pharmacists account for a significant amount of the flu vaccinations for adults,” said Andrew Kroger, MD, MPH, of the Communication and Education Branch, Immunization Services Division, at the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
“The demographics that are more challenging to reach are the 20- to 40-year-olds. They think they are healthy. But when there is an outbreak, then they react,” said Alex Novielli, PharmD, Manager for Immunization Services for Walgreens. Older people are more likely to come in for flu vaccine early in the season, he explained, while young adults wait until later, when they hear there is a flu outbreak.
Although the CDC now recommends flu shots for everyone, except those under 6 months of age, most states have a minimum age for pharmacists to administer vaccinations, usually around age 6 or 7.
“Over the last several years, community awareness of pharmacists providing immunizations has strengthened, not only with patients but other health-care providers leading to more and more people receiving their flu shot and other vaccines from their local pharmacist,” said Heather Free, PharmD, AAHIVP, a pharmacist in Washington, DC, and a Spokesperson for the APhA.
This puts pharmacists in a good position to help educate the public about flu vaccination. “Many times, people come to the pharmacy with their own views around vaccines, most importantly the flu shot,” said Free. “It is up to the pharmacy team, technicians included, to help educate patients around the benefits that vaccines provide for health conditions.” Pharmacists and pharmacy staff need to be up-to-date on their knowledge of flu vaccine, the contraindications, and people’s fears around vaccines, she added. “The pharmacy team needs to be prepared to address vaccine concerns to bust myths around vaccines.” The biggest myth is that getting a flu shot can cause the flu, she noted.
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The match between the composition in flu vaccines and the viral strains that circulate in a given flu season is never going to be perfect, said Novielli. The vaccines that were available in the 2016-2017 flu season were about a 50% match for the strains that circulated, he noted. This rate is about usual, with the match for most seasons being between 40 and 60%, according Kroger. Even if the rate of the match is low, vaccination against flu always helps. “Vaccination lessens severity and reduces transmission, said Kroger.”
No one can predict with any accuracy how bad this flu season will be. The Southern Hemisphere, especially Australia, is just concluding a bad flu season, but this does not mean we can expect the same on this half of the planet, according to Kroger. “Flu is unpredictable each year. We don’t know when the peak will occur, we don’t know the subtype-and that plays a big role in whether a season is bad-and it can change during the year.”
Several formulations of flu vaccine are available this year, including trivalent formulas, which have components against three strains of flu, and quadrivalent formulas, which contain components against four. There are also high-dose flu vaccines that are recommended for older individuals. Besse Medical has a chart of the flu vaccine products available this flu season, with recommended age ranges, available here.
Over the years, there has been a steady growth in the number of flu shots given at Walgreens, said Jim Cohn, Director of Media Relations and the resident communication expert on flu shots for the company. In 2013-the last year that numbers were made public by the chain-about 7 million flu shots were administered at a Walgreens, he said. This is in comparison to the 5 to 5.5 million shots administered in 2009, the first year that all Walgreens pharmacists were licensed to administer vaccines. This pattern of growth has continued since the company first started administering flu vaccines in 2006, he noted.