As the flu season quickly approaches, more and more people are turning to their local pharmacy to be vaccinated against the fever, chills and body aches of the annual scourge.
Most patients still receive their annual flu shot at their doctor’s office or at a health clinic, but retail pharmacies, with their ubiquitous locations and easy convenience, are putting a dent in boosting vaccination rates across the country.
That’s good news in Maine, where only 67 percent of adults over age 65 receive an annual flu shot, the lowest rate in New England and far short of goals to vaccinate 90 percent of those most susceptible to influenza, said Kenneth McCall, president of the Maine Pharmacy Association.
Together with pneumonia, flu is among the top 10 leading causes of death in Maine and the U.S., he said.
During the 2011-12 season, Maine recorded 140 deaths attributed to influenza or pneumonia, nearly 15 percent of all fatalities.
“We don’t often think about it because it happens every year, but these are still major public health diseases,” said McCall, who is also associate professor and chairman of the pharmacy practice department at the University of New England’s College of Pharmacy.
Nationally, the number of flu shots administered rose to 94 million in the 2010-11 season, up 14 million from 2006-07, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While the number of vaccinations at doctor’s offices and other medical settings held steady, doses administered in retail stores skyrocketed 180 percent to about 17 million in the last flu season.
“Most of the increase we’ve seen in the total number of flu shots given has been driven by pharmacies,” McCall said.
In 2009, Maine became one of the last states in the nation to permit pharmacists to administer flu shots. But the state became a leader during the last legislative session, McCall said, by passing a law that allows pharmacists to administer all vaccinations recommended for adults by the U.S. CDC.
So now, in addition to vaccines for the flu, pneumonia, shingles, tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough, adults will be able to visit a pharmacy for shots that protect against diseases including hepatitis A and B, chickenpox, human papillomavirus, mumps, measles and rubella.
The Maine Board of Pharmacy is drafting rules to implement the legislation, LD 1715, which was signed into law in April. It could be several months before the new vaccines are available at pharmacies.
Children still receive most vaccinations from a doctor, but pharmacies have helped many adults, especially those without a primary care physician, to get immunized, said Dr. Stephen Sears, Maine state epidemiologist.
“[Pharmacies] clearly play a role where people might not otherwise have easy access,” he said.
Maine has yet to record its first case of influenza this season, but vaccines are now available in many areas. Yearly flu vaccination should begin in September, according to the U.S. CDC. The flu season can begin as early as October, and typically peaks in January and February but can continue into May.
The vaccine, available as both a shot and a nasal spray, takes effect in about two weeks. How well it protects against influenza varies from season to season and can depend on the individual.
The annual flu vaccine is recommended for everyone aged 6 months and older. It’s the only immunization pharmacists in Maine can administer to children, and just to those over age 9.
Pharmacists can administer the flu shot without a prescription from the patient’s physician. For other adult vaccinations, pharmacists will need a prescription or written authorization from a doctor.
Pharmacy patients are provided with documentation that they’ve received a flu shot, which they can pass along to their doctor, McCall said. Pharmacies maintain records of flu shots for five years, as they do with other prescriptions.
“One thing we need to do better as a state is tracking adult immunizations,” McCall said. “We do a good job with child immunizations, but we do not have a systematic, statewide approach for tracking adult immunizations.”
For information about flu in Maine, visit maineflu.gov.