YOUR MONEY-It's flu season: Should you get a shot?

Reuters

(Corrects spelling throughout to Dr. Michael Jhung instead ofDr. Michael Jhang)

By Kathleen Kingsbury

Oct 28 (Reuters) - When her law office offered flu shots inmid-October, Kelly Walsh, a paralegal in Boston, hesitated.

Walsh didn't get vaccinated last year and didn't get sick.The year before, she had flu-like symptoms for a week aftergetting the shot.

"I also worried if everyone at work knew I got a flu shot,it'll be harder to take sick days if I do get the flu," saysWalsh, 38.

Ultimately, however, Walsh got jabbed, and experts agree itwas the right call. A recent study by the Centers for DiseaseControl and Prevention (CDC) and Vanderbilt University MedicalCenter found that getting a flu shot reduced the risk offlu-related hospitalization by 71.4 percent for all adults and76.8 percent for those over age 50 during the 2011-2012 fluseason.

The CDC estimates deaths associated with the flu numberbetween 3,000 and 49,000 people each year.

One reason people don't get vaccinated is cost. Flu shotsaren't always free. Most insurance does cover vaccinationsadministered at a doctor's office. But walk into your local CVS or Walgreen and you'll likely pay at least $35.Insurance won't necessarily cover shots at retail pharmacies.

Employers can help bring down those costs - and likely savethemselves money as well. The CDC estimates that seasonalinfluenza outbreaks average $10.4 billion in direct costs due tomedical treatment and hospitalizations. Part of those costs arethen passed along to employers in the form of higher premiumsand lost productivity.

Typically, more than 200,000 people are hospitalized eachyear for flu-related illness. Many large firms like Walsh'soffer free flu shot clinics, but letting workers know they won'tbe penalized for taking sick leave can also pay dividends forbusinesses big and small.

Last winter was a big year for influenza, and it caught manypatients and healthcare providers off-guard after several yearsof milder flu seasons. It's too early to know how this year'swill compare or even how many people have come down with the fluso far this autumn since those numbers, tracked by the CDC,weren't reported during the recent government shutdown.

Flu activity usually peaks in the United States in Januaryor February. Recent studies from the European Union show thevaccine offers less immunity and has a shorter duration thanpreviously thought, according to Kris Ehresmann, director of theinfectious disease division at the Minnesota Department ofHealth. "But now is the time to get vaccinated," she adds.

What's new this year, says Dr. Michael Jhung, medicalofficer at the CDC, is that many flu shots will immunize againstfour strains of the flu virus for the first time, an improvedprotection over years past. Drug companies plan to make 135million to 139 million doses of vaccines approved by the Foodand Drug Administration.

Several vaccination options are available. They include: astandard dose for adults and children, a high-dose shot forpeople over age 65, a nasal spray for those who don't likeneedles, and a dose that is egg-free for patients who areallergic.

Everyone over the age of 6 months should get one, expertssay. "We don't prefer one vaccine over another," Jhung says."Whatever vaccine patients choose, we're happy."

The elderly, children under age 5, pregnant women, andpeople with other chronic health conditions are most vulnerableto the flu.

Getting immunized earlier guarantees protection whenever theflu season starts in earnest, Jhung notes. Plus, adults whodon't get vaccinated can put others, including children, atrisk. Only 42 percent of Americans got vaccinated in the2011-2012 flu season, the latest data available from the CDC.

As an added bonus, a new study published in the Journal ofthe American Medical Association found that up to 36 percent ofthose vaccinated reduced their risk of heart attack, stroke, orother cardiovascular health problems just by getting a flu shot.Based on these findings, the researchers calculated that onedeath or serious illness due to heart trouble could be preventedby vaccinating 58 additional people.

Peter Delgado, a 66-year-old self-employed accountant,recently left a Cambridge, Massachusetts, Rite Aid before getting his flu shot. "There was too much paperwork tofill out, and they wanted to charge me $70," says Delgado, wholives nearby. The high-dose version of the shot, recommended forolder people, often costs more than the normal vaccine.

His wife, however, soon sent him back in. "I told him, 'Ifyou get sick from the flu and can't work, you'll feel foolishover $70,'" says Anne Delgado, 66, who is retired. "One shotcould mean food on the table for us." (Follow us @ReutersMoney or at http://www.reuters.com/finance/personal-finance; Editing by Lauren Young and Meredith Mazzilli)

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