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Flu Vaccination Rates Rise, But Officials Still Urge Shots

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More Americans are getting vaccinated against the flu, but there is still room for improvement, public health officials said today.

During last year's (2012-2013) particularly bad flu season, about 42 percent of adults received a flu shot, up from 39 percent the previous season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

An even bigger increase was seen in children: Nearly 57 percent of children ages 6 months to 17 years old received a flu shot last season, which is about 5 percentage points higher than the previous season, and 13 percentage points higher than two seasons ago. Considering both children and adults together, about 45 percent of the U.S. population was vaccinated last season, up from about 42 percent the previous season.

However, public health officials would still like to see more people vaccinated. Vaccination rates varied by state, ranging between 34 percent and 57 percent. As we enter a new flu season, officials urged Americans to get their flu shot.

"That first cough of fever is not the time to start thinking about influenza vaccination," Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said at a news conference today. "Today is the time to start thinking about it." [Flu Shot 2013-2014: Strains, Release Date & Side Effects]

Flu vaccine manufacturers expect to produce about 135 million doses of influenza vaccine this year, Schuchat said, and about 70 million doses have already been distributed to health care providers.

"The vaccine is out there, and now's the time to get it," Schuchat said.

Exactly when flu season starts and ends is unpredictable, so health officials recommend that people get their flu shot in early fall, before flu activity starts to rise. Flu vaccination is recommended for everyone ages 6 months and older. After vaccination, it takes a person about two weeks to build up immunity against the flu.

For this flu season (2013-2014), there are more options for flu vaccines than ever before. For the first time, a vaccine that protects against four strains of flu (quadrivalent) will be offered. Most flu vaccines that are being manufactured, however, protect against three strains (trivalent).

There are also an egg-free version for those with egg allergies, a high-dose version for those ages 65 and older,  a nasal spray, and a small needle vaccine, called an intradermal vaccine. The CDC does not recommend one vaccine over the other, and officials said it's better to get vaccinated with any of the options than to not be vaccinated at all.

"The best vaccine is the one that’s delivered," said Dr. Howard K. Koh, assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Last year's flu vaccine (for the 2012-2013 flu season) was moderately effective at protecting against the flu. Among all age groups, the vaccine was 56 percent effective, meaning it reduced the risk of a doctor's visit for flu by 56 percent.

Health officials don't know how effective this year's vaccine will be right now, but they will monitor the vaccine effectiveness over the course of the season.

While the flu vaccine is not perfect, it is the best way to protect yourself from the flu, the CDC says. People can visit the CDC's HealthMap Vaccine Finder to find flu shot locations, although they should call the location ahead of time to see if they have the vaccine in stock.

Other ways to protect yourself and others from the flu include: staying away from those who are sick with the flu, washing hands to reduce the spread of germs and staying home from work or school if you have the flu, the CDC says.

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Rachael Rettner

Rachael has been with Live Science since 2010. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.