Albertans six months and older can now get the flu shot for free across the province starting Monday.
Last year's flu season was a brutal one, due to a strain that mutated as it headed north — 92 people in Alberta died from complications related to the flu and 3,047 admitted to hospital with the virus.
But Craig Jenne, an associate professor in the department of microbiology, immunology and infectious disease at the University of Calgary said the four vaccine strains included in the vaccine this year are strong matches.
"It looks like the vaccine's a good match so that will help keep the burden at hospitals, emergency rooms and intensive care hopefully lower," Jenne said.
"But if the flu happens to change in the early part of the season, November, December, then we could be in for a bad year."
The province creates its vaccine based on the strains that are active during the southern hemisphere's flu season, which takes place during Canada's summer but their winter.
Jenne stressed the importance of herd immunity — when enough of the population is vaccinated it makes it difficult for the infection to spread — to protect the health of people who are immunodeficient, or are too young to get the vaccine.
Even if you're young, healthy, don't necessarily get sick, you are the carrier that's going to infect more vulnerable people in the population. - Craig Jenne, associate professor of immunology
"It is a highly contagious infection," Jenne said.
"That's really where the vaccination program comes in, if we can get enough of the public vaccinated it's hard for it to spread from one person to the next."
He recommended every Albertan that is able should get the vaccine.
"Even if you're young, healthy, don't necessarily get sick, you are the carrier that's going to infect more vulnerable people in the population."
Last year, the province purchased 1.6 million doses of the influenza vaccine — enough to inoculate 36 per cent of the population — but just 1.2 million people were vaccinated.
This year, they're aiming for 1.6 million again.
Dr. Judy MacDonald — the medical officer of health for Alberta Health Services in Calgary — said they're trying to get the message out that the flu vaccine is important.
"We never know exactly but we're going to see and that's why it's important to realize the vaccine creates protection against more than one strain," she said.
The flu vaccine is safe for everyone over six months of age, and it's especially important for children, the elderly, people with chronic medical conditions, or anyone in close contact with those groups, MacDonald said. It can't cause the flu, but can cause mild side effects like headache and muscle aches.
Flu shot can lower severity of illness
Jenne said studies show that even when the vaccine isn't a perfect match, people who get it yearly have a lower severity of infection.
"You still have protection, you [could still] get sick … but your chances of ending up in the hospital will be significantly reduced," he said.
Flu symptoms include body aches, cough and fever. On top of getting vaccinated, people should wash their hands frequently and stay home from school or work if ill.
Alaina McNeely took her six-month-old daughter Freya to be vaccinated on Monday.
Both of her young children have heart issues, and McNeely said as a healthcare worker she's seen the necessity of vaccinations first-hand.
"It's really important we keep our kids healthy," she said.
The vaccine is available though walk-in clinics, pharmacies and family doctors across the province — a full list of clinics across Alberta is available on the Alberta Health Services website.
These drop-in immunization clinics in Calgary will be open on Monday:
- Northgate, A154 495 36th Street N.E., 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
- Richmond Road Diagnostic and Treatment Centre, 1820 Richmond Road S.W., 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
- Brentwood Village Mall, 302 3630 Brentwood Road N.W., 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
- South Calgary Health Centre, 31 Sunpark Plaza S.E., 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
With files from Dave Dormer