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Doctors push flu shot despite study's findings

DULUTH - If you're thinking about skipping that flu shot this year, infectious disease experts in the Northland have some advice for you:

Think again.

"You should get your flu shot," said Dr. Timothy Burke, infectious disease specialist for Essentia Health.

"I'd encourage everyone to continue to get their influenza vaccinations," said Dr. Linda Van Etta, who holds the same title for St. Luke's hospital.

Primary care doctors have told Van Etta that patients have been asking whether flu shots are necessary in the wake of a study that was in the news last week. The study, led by Dr. Michael Osterholm of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, suggested that the flu vaccine is less effective than we may have thought. It concluded the vaccine is about 59 percent effective for people from ages 18 to 65.

But the message of the study is that the flu vaccine needs to be improved, Van Etta said. It's not that people shouldn't get the shot.

"I think even Mike Osterholm and his group would be saddened if that was the take-home message," Van Etta said. "They wrote this as a way to stimulate the ongoing research for even better vaccines; but in the meantime, 59 percent -- that's a response more than half of the time. That's a pretty darn good response."

In fact, that's what Osterholm did say when interviewed last week by Gary Eichten on Minnesota Public Radio's "Midday."

"Fifty-nine percent's a heck of a lot better than zero," Osterholm told Eichten. "It's absolutely safe, and it's cheap, and today you have access to it. ... It's often given at your local grocery store or pharmacy."

That includes Walgreens, which has stores in Duluth and Superior. All Walgreens stores offer flu shots every day without appointment throughout the flu season, said Jim Cohn, a company spokesman. No figures were available for October yet, but through September the chain had given more than 1.9 million flu shots this year -- down from just over 2.2 million at the same time last year.

Moreover, many employers offer flu shots to their employees, Van Etta noted. "They recognize that this really makes sense financially to bring your influenza vaccine on site and give it free of charge," she said.

Minnesota Power will offer free flu shots this week at its home office in Duluth and at its energy center in Boswell and service center in Herbert, spokeswoman Amy Rutledge said.

"We know it's a preventative measure," Rutledge said. "We know it's not 100 percent effective, but we think it's a benefit to our employees to offer the free vaccinations."

The stakes are high. About 25,000 Americans die from the influenza each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That's why the vaccine needs to be improved, the experts say. Burke and Van Etta said they would expect a new and improved model to be effective for all strains of flu, be developed more rapidly and be effective for more than one year. Both noted a better vaccine is a government priority.

"A lot of medical advances need governmental input and encouragement because pure market forces won't get the job done," Burke said.

Only 43 percent of the U.S. adult population got flu shots last year, according to the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention. Some people complain that when they did get a flu shot, they still came down with a cold that winter, Van Etta said.

"Except the cold was due to a rhinovirus; it wasn't due to true influenza," she said. "If you've had true influenza A or B, it's memorable. You know how sick you are. You're sick in bed. And we find people who had true influenza in the past, they are the first to line up to get the vaccination."