If your kids hate going back to school while the swimming pool is still open, imagine how they'll feel about getting flu shots in August.
Not that they need the vaccine this early -- nor do seniors for whom immunization is critical. But the shots are available now at major drugstore chains such as CVS, Rite Aid and Walgreens -- much earlier than used to be the case.
The early offerings may be primarily a sales tactic for companies trying to up their share of the market.
"It gets very competitive for these entities," said Guillermo Cole, spokesman for the Allegheny County Health Department. "I think everyone's trying to get a leg up."
In addition to the traditional shot, the vaccine is available in the relatively new and painless intradermal shot, which pierces the skin but not the muscle (approved for ages 18 to 64), and the intranasal vaccine (for those age 2 to 49 who are not pregnant and have no chronic illness). All are considered effective.
Because today's vaccine lasts longer than previous versions, it's OK, although not necessary, to immunize now.
"There's no reason to worry about the vaccine wearing off or the supply running out," Mr. Cole said.
"October and November are the optimal times, but getting it in August or September doesn't hurt. The problem is with those who don't get around to it."
Jennifer Preiss, a primary care physician with Allegheny Health Network's Greentree Medical Associates, said she has changed her advice to patients since the vaccine became longer-lasting.
"Prior to this year, I was very much against getting flu shots this early. I told my patients to wait until mid-October so the coverage would last into late spring. But the vaccine now gives a good six months of protection. There's no reason to rush out and get it right this second, but it's fine if someone wants to."
The vaccine is only minimally available now, Dr. Preiss said, because the manufacturers haven't released all of their product yet. She noted that costs and co-pays can vary, so patients should call ahead and ask.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends getting the vaccine as soon as it becomes available. The goal, Mr. Cole said, is for people to get their shots before the flu arrives -- it takes 10 days to two weeks for full immunity to build up after immunization -- but, he said, "as long as there's flu activity, we tell them it's never too late."
Allegheny County will kick off its vaccination program Sept. 17 at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill. Its Oakland clinic will start offering shots Sept. 9.
"We're a relatively small provider these days," Mr. Cole said. "Flu shots are everywhere now; they're more ubiquitous than pizza, and that's a good thing. Retailers, family physicians, hospitals, clinics. It's more convenient for people, closer to home and they can walk in without an appointment."
Scientists gauge which strains the vaccine will guard against based on what flu was present 18 months ago on the other side of the globe. This year's vaccine will contain antigens for two influenza A strains, H1N1 and H3N3, and one influenza B strain.
Dr. Preiss noted that the flu can wreak havoc with pregnant women, who should be vaccinated after the first trimester.
Likewise for the very young and very old. Babies 6 months and younger should not get the vaccine, so it's doubly important that anyone who works with babies be immunized. And because the flu can be deadly for seniors, Medicare covers flu shots.
Those who should not be vaccinated: Anyone who has had a severe reaction to a flu shot; is severely allergic to chicken eggs; is ill with a fever; has a history of Guillain-Barre syndrome; or is a child 6 months or younger.
Sally Kalson: email@example.com or 412-263-1610.