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As flu cases spike, late rush for vaccinations

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013 9:59 a.m. CST

(MCT) — Worried he'd catch the flu and pass it to his two young sons, Jim McGarry decided he'd finally get vaccinated Tuesday afternoon.

"My wife said, 'Hey, you should get this,'" said McGarry, 36, of Chicago, who has a preschooler and a 9-month-old.

But he knows he may be too late. His older son stayed home from school Tuesday, McGarry said, sharing a cellphone picture of the rosy-cheeked boy sleeping on the couch. While he isn't sure his son has the flu, he wouldn't be surprised.

"They take turns chewing on toys," McGarry said about children in his son's class.

As an early, harsh flu season that could last through May officially reached epidemic levels this past week, people have flocked to local pharmacies and clinics, hoping it's not too late for a shot at avoiding the virus.

Their tardiness may be indicative of a statewide trend — Illinois residents tend not to get flu shots.

A new review of federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data released Tuesday shows the state ranked 45th in its overall vaccination rate last flu season, with about 37 percent getting the shot. Nationwide the average was about 42 percent, with South Dakota in first with about 51 percent, and Nevada last with less than 33 percent, according to an analysis by the Trust for America's Health, a health advocacy nonprofit organization.

Previous years were slightly better in Illinois — about 38 percent in the 2009-10 flu season and just less than 40 percent in the 2010-11 season, according to CDC data. But state officials say Illinois has a long way to go.

Unfortunately for parents like McGarry, the vaccination rates for both the state and nation are a far cry from those that would allow for "herd immunity" — the point at which there are enough people vaccinated to protect their more vulnerable peers from catching the flu.

"We almost never get that," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "That just doesn't happen."

In Chicago, there has been a "definite increase" in demand for the vaccine in recent weeks, at a time when most people usually have already gotten it — or taken a pass, said Dr. Julie Morita, medical director for the city's Health Department.

Local pharmacists agree.

"I can tell you one day last week we did more flu shots in one day than we did in the whole month of January last year," said Nancy Davis, pharmacy manager for a Walgreens in Glencoe. "I think that people are finally figuring out that the flu this year means business."

Morita chalked up the local rush to a headline-grabbing season that has been "highly motivational" for otherwise reluctant patients. On Friday, the CDC said the seasonal illness has reached epidemic levels across the country, which means that more than 7 percent of the deaths across the country are connected to the flu.

Still, officials are touting the effectiveness of this year's flu vaccination, which they say is 62 percent effective. The effectiveness rate is typically between 50 and 70 percent, CDC spokesman Curtis Allen said.

"That means that if you got vaccinated, you're about 60 percent less likely to get the flu that requires you to go to your doctor," CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden said during a conference call Friday. "So what we have known for a long time is that the flu vaccine is far from perfect. But it's still by far the best tool we have to prevent the flu."

Right now, the vaccine targets what scientists hope are the three most common strains of the flu. But CDC officials said vaccines in the near future, perhaps a year or two, may target four strains, reducing the chances that someone who's vaccinated still may get sick.

But those just now heading to get vaccinated should take heed: The flu shot typically takes two weeks to hit maximum effectiveness, Davis said.

While the CDC won't be able to say how much of the total percentage of the population got vaccinated until spring — it takes the measure in November, and again in March — the agency keeps track of how many doses of the flu vaccine are distributed across the country on a weekly basis.

As of Jan. 4, 128 million doses of vaccine have been distributed. Since the swine flu pandemic of 2009, that number has remained fairly high compared with earlier seasons, Allen said. A decade ago, as few as 110 million doses may have been handed out for the entire season.

But Illinois has not taken as big a share as it could. Melaney Arnold, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health, said in a statement that the state has made recent progress but still has a "long way to go" with its vaccination rate.

Illinois has tried to boost its rate by greater coordination with local health departments and offering flu shots in more convenient locations, such as malls and workplaces, Arnold said.

From August to Dec. 31, 2012, compared with the same time period in 2011, Deerfield-based Walgreen Co. administered 200,000 more shots nationwide. Area Jewel-Osco stores received 7,000 additional doses of the vaccine Tuesday to match an increasing demand.

"In all the years I've been a pharmacist, I've never seen such a drastic desire to be vaccinated," said Lizzette Perez, who has been a pharmacist at a North Side Jewel-Osco for five years.

Two Jewel-Osco employees got their vaccines at work Tuesday morning, after head pharmacist Perez allayed their fears that the vaccine could make them sick.

"I can't be missing days of work," said Tom Dinkel, 28, of Niles, who just got a promotion at the store.

Al Eskilson, 51, of Chicago, said he got the vaccine because the outbreak scared him into it.

"I figured I might as well go for it," Eskilson said.

Morita said she is hopeful this season will end with a better vaccination rate for Chicago.

"We put a lot into this before realizing the season would be so early and severe," she said, pointing to Vaccinate Chicago Week in early December. The public education campaign urged Chicagoans to get a flu shot before the season kicked into high gear.

Twenty-seven people in Illinois have died of flu-related causes so far this season. Davis said she thinks people are realizing the risk isn't worth it.

"It's not just a passing 'you feel punky' for a day or two," Davis said. "People are dying of the flu. … That's a real eye-opener."

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