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Flu vaccine is available in Willmar, Minn.

WILLMAR -- It's still summer but local health officials say it's not too soon to start thinking about the annual fall ritual of getting immunized against influenza.

The Willmar medical clinics have already received their allotments of the flu vaccine and began doling it out this month to established patients and to staff. Local pharmacies have begun offering flu shots as well.

The supply this year is plentiful, said Jo DeBruycker, manager of the Health Learning Center at Affiliated Community Medical Centers.

"If you're thinking about it, get it done," she said.

Providers used to wait until October to start administering the flu vaccine.

This changed a few years ago and the vaccine is now given as soon as it becomes available, usually sometime in August.

It's earlier than many people are accustomed to, but studies indicate that flu shots in August and September as just as effective as when they're given later in fall, DeBruycker said. "There's good data that show this covers through the season."

The early start time also has been beneficial in offering more opportunities for people to get immunized, said Stacey Zondervan, director of patient services at Family Practice Medical Center of Willmar.

"We're able to catch them earlier now," she said. "It's nice that it's offered in such an expanded period of time."

And people seem to have caught on, she noted. "I think they're becoming acclimated to getting immunized against influenza in August."

This year's version of the vaccine includes protection against A/California, A/Victoria and B/Wisconsin strains of the influenza virus. The A/California H1N1-like strain was also included in last year's formula. The A/Victoria (H3N2) and B/Wisconsin strains are new.

There may be a wild card in the upcoming influenza season: the emergence of a new H3N2-variant flu virus that's transmitted from swine to humans. As of mid-August it had sickened more than 120 people, mostly children who came into contact with pigs at county fairs.

"It's hard to predict what is going to occur in the flu season," Zondervan said.

But she and DeBruycker said the best way to avoid coming down with swine flu -- or any other form of the influenza virus that might be circulating during the season ahead -- is to get a flu shot.

One of the strains in this year's vaccine is similar to the swine flu variant and may offer some cross-protection, DeBruycker said. "None of us knows so all you can do is protect yourself the best you can."

"We know people have the best odds of not contracting influenza if they've been immunized," Zondervan agreed.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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