By Kathleen Kingsbury
Oct 28 (Reuters) - When her law office offered flu shots in mid-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 after getting 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," says Walsh, 38.
Ultimately, however, Walsh got jabbed, and experts agree it was the right call. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Vanderbilt University Medical Center found that getting a flu shot reduced the risk of flu-related hospitalization by 71.4 percent for all adults and 76.8 percent for those over age 50 during the 2011-2012 flu season.
The CDC estimates deaths associated with the flu number between 3,000 and 49,000 people each year.
One reason people don't get vaccinated is cost. Flu shots aren't always free. Most insurance does cover vaccinations administered 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 save themselves money as well. The CDC estimates that seasonal influenza outbreaks average $10.4 billion in direct costs due to medical treatment and hospitalizations. Part of those costs are then passed along to employers in the form of higher premiums and lost productivity.
Typically, more than 200,000 people are hospitalized each year for flu-related illness. Many large firms like Walsh's offer free flu shot clinics, but letting workers know they won't be penalized for taking sick leave can also pay dividends for businesses big and small.
Last winter was a big year for influenza, and it caught many patients and healthcare providers off-guard after several years of milder flu seasons. It's too early to know how this year's will compare or even how many people have come down with the flu so 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 January or February. Recent studies from the European Union show the vaccine offers less immunity and has a shorter duration than previously thought, according to Kris Ehresmann, director of the infectious disease division at the Minnesota Department of Health. "But now is the time to get vaccinated," she adds.
What's new this year, says Dr. Michael Young, medical officer at the CDC, is that many flu shots will immunize against four strains of the flu virus for the first time, an improved protection over years past. Drug companies plan to make 135 million to 139 million doses of vaccines approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
Several vaccination options are available. They include: a standard dose for adults and children, a high-dose shot for people over age 65, a nasal spray for those who don't like needles, and a dose that is egg-free for patients who are allergic.
Everyone over the age of 6 months should get one, experts say. "We don't prefer one vaccine over another," Young says. "Whatever vaccine patients choose, we're happy."
The elderly, children under age 5, pregnant women, and people with other chronic health conditions are most vulnerable to the flu.
Getting immunized earlier guarantees protection whenever the flu season starts in earnest, Young notes. Plus, adults who don't get vaccinated can put others, including children, at risk. Only 42 percent of Americans got vaccinated in the 2011-2012 flu season, the latest data available from the CDC.
As an added bonus, a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that up to 36 percent of those vaccinated reduced their risk of heart attack, stroke, or other cardiovascular health problems just by getting a flu shot. Based on these findings, the researchers calculated that one death or serious illness due to heart trouble could be prevented by 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 to fill out, and they wanted to charge me $70," says Delgado, who lives nearby. The high-dose version of the shot, recommended for older people, often costs more than the normal vaccine.
His wife, however, soon sent him back in. "I told him, 'If you get sick from the flu and can't work, you'll feel foolish over $70,' " says Anne Delgado, 66, who is retired. "One shot could mean food on the table for us."