WILLMAR -- If you plan to get an influenza shot this year, there's no time like the present.
Local health providers and pharmacies such as Cub Foods and Walgreen's began offering the vaccine in August, and they say the supply is plentiful.
"Get it done and cross it off your list," said Jo DeBruycker, manager of the Health Learning Center at Affiliated Community Medical Centers.
Local providers are on track to administer a record number of flu shots this year. ACMC has ordered 33,000 doses of vaccine and expects to use all of them within its regional health network by December or January.
Demand for flu shots is steadily growing, DeBruycker said. "We see over a 3 percent rise every year."
The same thing is happening at Family Practice Medical Center, where Stacey Zondervan, patient services supervisor, has especially seen an increase among the number of children receiving flu shots.
"We're seeing more and more," she said. "It seems like overall, across the board, there's more kids getting it. I think parents are realizing the importance of not having a child miss a week of school due to influenza."
Annual flu shots are now recommended for virtually everyone who's over the age of 6 months.
"Pretty much everyone should get it," Zondervan said. "When there's not a shortage, it's come one, come all."
The vaccine is particularly urged for individuals who are at greater risk of severe illness or complications from influenza. This includes anyone over age 65, children ages 6 months to 5 years, anyone with a chronic health condition such as diabetes, asthma or weakened immune system, and women who will be pregnant during flu season.
Health officials also are emphasizing the importance of creating a buffer for those most vulnerable to influenza.
Healthy adults who skip getting a flu shot might not become seriously ill from flu, but if they're a caregiver or have frequent contact with the very young, the very old or the chronically ill, they can unwittingly spread the virus, DeBruycker said.
"Who do you interact with? Who's vulnerable? Your little sniffle could be devastating for them," she said.
Recent studies also have found that children are one of the main vehicles for spreading flu viruses within a community, hence the growing emphasis on getting this age group vaccinated.
DeBruycker said ACMC is involved in two pilot projects this fall in Redwood and Lyon counties, partnering with local public health agencies to administer flu shots in schools.
"It's convenient but we also know children are people who transmit to other people," she said.
Those lining up for flu shots this fall will find more options than ever before. Healthy individuals ages 2 to 49 can forgo the needle and receive FluMist, an inhaled version of the flu vaccine, instead.
More people are requesting FluMist, Zondervan said. "Our FluMist numbers have been increasing."
Allergy to eggs is no longer an automatic barrier to receiving the flu vaccine. Some individuals with mild allergy may now be able to safely get a flu shot, although they'll need to be screened first, DeBruycker said.
For those who aren't an established patient at a local clinic or who can't obtain a flu shot during clinic hours, the vaccine also is readily available at some pharmacies, she said. "There's a lot more options, which is good. But many people still look toward their doctor's clinic for vaccination."
This year's version of the influenza vaccine protects against three strains of flu virus: an A-type strain, a B strain and the H1N1 virus responsible for a pandemic in 2009.