Dear Savvy Senior,
What can you tell me about this year’s flu shot? Last year’s vaccine was ineffective at preventing the flu, especially among seniors. What options are available to me this year?
— Seeking Protection
You’re right. Last season’s flu shot was not very effective at preventing the flu. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people who got the shot were just 19 percent less likely to visit the doctor for flu than people who did not get the shot. In good years, flu shot effectiveness is in the 50 to 60 percent range.
The reason for the shot’s ineffectiveness last year was because the vaccine was mismatched to the circulating flu viruses, which can genetically shift from year-to-year.
This year, U.S. health officials have tweaked the flu vaccines to include last year’s missing strain, which will hopefully provide better protection. But a flu shot is still your best defense against the flu. So, depending on your health, age and personal preference, here are the flu vaccine options (you only need one of these) available to older adults this year.
Standard (trivalent) flu shot: This traditional flu shot has been around for more than 30 years and protects against three different strains of flu viruses. This year’s version protects against two A strains (H1N1 and H3N2) and one influenza B virus.
Quadrivalent flu shot: This vaccine, which was introduced two years ago, protects against four types of influenza—the same three strains as the standard flu shot, plus an additional new B-strain virus.
High-dose flu shot: Designed specifically for seniors age 65 and older this trivalent vaccine, called the Fluzone High-Dose, has four times the amount of antigen as a regular flu shot does, which creates a stronger immune response for better protection. However, note that the high-dose option may also be more likely to cause side effects, including headache, muscle aches and fever.
FluBlok vaccine: Created for adults 18 and older who have egg allergies, this is a trivalent flu vaccine that does not use chicken eggs in its manufacturing process.
Intradermal flu shot: For those who don’t like needles, the intradermal flu shot uses a tiny 1/16-inch long micro-needle to inject the vaccine just under the skin, rather than deeper in the muscle like standard flu shots. This trivalent vaccine, however, is recommended only to adults, ages 18 to 64.
To locate a vaccination site that offers these flu shots, visit vaccines.gov and type in your ZIP code. You’ll also be happy to know that if you’re a Medicare beneficiary, Part B will cover 100 percent of the costs of any flu shot, as long as your doctor, health clinic or pharmacy agrees not to charge you more than Medicare pays. Private health insurers are also required to cover standard flu shots, however, you’ll need to check with your provider to see if they cover the other vaccination options.
Two other important vaccinations the CDC recommends to seniors, especially this time of year, are the pneumococcal vaccines for pneumonia. Around 1 million Americans are hospitalized with pneumonia each year and about 50,000 people die from it.
The CDC is now recommending that all seniors, 65 or older, get two vaccinations –Prevnar 13 and Pneumovax 23. Both vaccines, which are administered just once at different times, work in different ways to provide maximum protection.
If you haven’t yet received any pneumococcal vaccine you should get the Prevnar 13 first, followed by Pneumovax 23 six to 12 months later. But if you’ve already been vaccinated with Pneumovax 23, wait at least one year before getting the Prevnar 13.
Medicare Part B covers both shots, if they are taken at least 11 months apart.
Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.