Doctors and public health officials agree that almost everyone should get immunized against seasonal influenza. Every year the national vaccine is altered to protect against strains of flu that the national Centers for Disease Control predicts will be present in that year. This year’s version will protect against five strains of flu, including H1N1 (popularly called “swine flu”), which caused considerable worry last year.
On Martha’s Vineyard, the easiest way to get protected is to take part in the annual free All-Island Seasonal Flu Clinic, to be held again this year from 8 am to noon at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS), on November 11.
The November 11 date allows time for the vaccine to establish maximum immunity, which will last through the period of risk, typically from December through March. Although some national chain drug stores began selling flu shots in early September, Dr. Timothy Johnson, medical editor for ABC News, has reported that it is possible that protection begun then might not last through the flu season. This year the national supply of doses is much larger than in earlier years, and there is no danger the Vineyard will run out.
While immunization is strongly advised for anyone aged six months and over, the November 11 clinic will offer flu shots only to adults and high school students. Vineyard health officials are still considering ways to immunize younger school children, but according to Superintendent of Schools James Weiss, it will probably not be in the schools this year. Dr. Michael Goldfein, Vineyard public schools doctor, recommends saving that strategy for true emergencies, such as last year’s H1N1 scare. Parents of children from six months through elementary school should consult their own physicians. Some off-Island pharmacies offer flu shots for children as young as two.
Persons allergic to eggs should not use the regular vaccine, which is made from eggs. There is a nasal live virus mist available, but it will not be offered at the November 11 clinic, and persons with egg allergies should consult their physicians.
There is also a special vaccine (Fluzone High Dose) available for persons over 65 with special health risks. This version will also not be offered at the clinic, and seniors should ask their own doctors whether they should take the regular flu shot (recommended for most seniors) or seek the higher dose.
How to participate:
• Pick up a registration form and fill it out. You can get a form at various places about the Island, including your town hall, library, pharmacy, or council on aging. The shots are free. If you have Medicare Part B, Medicare will pay for the shot, and you will need your Medicare card.
• Go to one of the two staging areas: Waban Park in Oak Bluffs or the Agricultural Society fair grounds in West Tisbury. Someone will check your forms (extra forms will be available) and then direct you to the MVRHS. You can’t go to the high school without going first to a staging area.
• At the MVRHS, you will be directed to park and walk into the gym through the Performing Arts Center (quite a long walk) or drive your car to an area where vaccinations will be given in your car.
The drive-through option is becoming more popular every year. At first, it was theorized that only the infirm would need drive-through service, but in recent years the service has proved invaluable for parents with small children, who can just stay in the car while mommy or daddy gets a flu shot, and more convenient for others.
It turns out that drive-through flu shots are more efficient than indoor stations, and the process avoids exposing crowds of people to one another’s germs. This year many more clients will be directed to the drive-through line. It may be that in future years almost everyone will be immunized this way.
West Tisbury health agent John Powers comments, “Every year we do this, we learn ways to do it better and quicker.”
The All-Island seasonal flu clinic is valuable in itself to public health on the Vineyard, but it is more important as a medical emergency drill. From its beginning, the flu clinic was conceived as practice for a serious pandemic such as avian influenza (“bird flu”), a terrorist attack using a weaponized virus (perhaps anthrax or tularemia), or Island-wide radiation exposure from a nuclear accident. The health officials who run the clinic always have in mind, “What would happen if we needed to immunize every man, woman, and child on the Vineyard? How would we do that?” Of course everyone hopes that will never happen, but if it does, the response will have been shaped by the All-Island Seasonal Flu Clinic.