The flu season is approaching without any dire warnings of vaccine shortages or novel strains of influenza sweeping the globe.
The message from health officials is simple this time: The seasonal flu viruses are more virulent than the common cold and getting a flu shot once a year is a good idea.
The Merced County Department of Public Health recommends people get flu shots from their primary-care physicians, but it will offer the vaccinations beginning next month.
"Flu season is always very unpredictable," said Kathleen Grassi, director of the Merced County Department of Public Health. "Each year is hard to really know ahead of time how many cases of flu may occur and how severe those cases may be."
Last year, the season was pretty mild, she said. While no unusual flu activity has been seen so far, Grassi said, there's no way to know for sure what the flu season will be like.
That's why it's important for people to get a flu shot and take other preventive steps, such as washing their hands frequently and covering their cough when they're sick or feel they might be getting sick, she said.
"We really emphasize prevention, and getting the flu shot each fall is the best prevention one can take to avoid getting the flu," she said.
The department's community flu clinics will begin on Oct. 11 in Merced, Oct. 18 in Los Banos and Oct. 25 in Atwater. They will have drive-through service on those days for people who don't want to get out of their vehicles to get vaccinated.
Beginning in November, the department will have a list of clinics that will be held at smaller communities throughout Merced county.
For those who pay out of pocket for a flu shot, the price has risen, with some private pharmacies quoting more than $30 a poke.
Flu shots are available at pharmacy chains such as CVS and Walgreen's. Many private pharmacies offer flu vaccinations to walk-in customers and accept insurance and Medicare.
The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends flu shots for adults and children age 6 months and older. This year's vaccine guards against seasonal strains, plus the H1N1 virus.
Public health officials stress that it's important for certain groups to be protected against seasonal flu. These include seniors, pregnant women, young children and people with chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart and lung diseases.
Another way to reduce the spread of the disease is for working adults and schoolchildren to stay home when they're sick, public health officials stressed.
The first flu cases usually start appearing in November, and the flu season tends to peak in February or March.
For more information on the county's public health department's 2012 flu clinic schedule, enter "flu" in the search box on the county's website, www.co.merced.ca.us.
Information on the flu clinics can be had by calling the Merced County Flu Info Line at (209) 381-1180 for English, (209) 381-1181 for Spanish, or by calling the department's Immunization Program at (209) 381-1023.