'Tis the season: Free flu shot clinics open in Ontario

Flu season is fast approaching, and though it may be a pain in the arm, it’s time to start thinking about getting vaccinated.

Ontarians can roll up their sleeves for free flu shots starting this week

Free influenza shots are now available across Ontario. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

Flu season is fast approaching and though it may be a pain in the arm, it's time to start thinking about getting vaccinated.

Ontario launched its annual flu immunization program on Monday. Starting this week, free vaccinations will be available at doctors' offices, local public health units and pharmacies. 

1. Why should I get the flu shot?

Influenza is a serious and contagious respiratory infection that can lead to hospitalization and even death.

"Speaking as a doctor and a public health expert, I can assure you that the flu shot is the best defence we have against catching the flu," Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins said Monday.

He explained that flu viruses are always changing and that people need to get an updated shot every year.

A physician from Public Health Ontario told CBC News the strains that generally circulate each year are influenza A(H3N2), influenza A(H1N1) and influenza B. This year's H3N2 strain is different than last year's.

Dr. Allison McGeer, head of infection control at Mt. Sinai hospital, said people need to protect themselves.

"If you don't care to know anything about influenza, and I'm sympathetic if you don't, then what you should do is trust the public health experts who have spent a long time worrying about it and thinking about it."

2. Who can get the vaccine?

In Ontario, all individuals six months of age or older who live, work or attend school in Ontario are eligible to receive the flu vaccine for free.

People at high risk for complications related to influenza include children under five years of age, seniors, people with chronic health conditions, including obesity, diabetes, heart and lung disease and pregnant women.

3. Will the flu shot make me sick?

McGeer said the flu shot may give you a sore arm, but it can't actually give you the flu. She explained the vaccine is made from a dead form of the virus that can't transmit the infection.

She said about one in 10,000 people have an allergic reaction to the traces of antibiotics that may be found in vaccines. About one in one million people develop Guillain–Barré syndrome, a rare, abnormal immune reaction that can be triggered by many other vaccines. 

If people are allergic to a component of a vaccine, she said they should talk to a physician to find out exactly what they are allergic to, and find a vaccine that does not contain that component.

4. Does it work?

McGeer told CBC News influenza vaccines are generally 50 to 60 percent effective. "The relevant question is not whether it's 100 percent effective," she said. "It's whether it works to protect you from illness and death."

She compared it to wearing a seatbelt in a car. Seatbelts don't protect against 100 percent of injuries, but people wear them because they do help. "At 60 percent, the vaccine is still a lot better than nothing."

5. I hate needles…do I have to get the injection?

Children between the ages of five and 17 years can get the flu vaccine as an injection or nasal spray for free.

McGeer said the nasal spray is not as effective and not recommended for adults, but they can choose to pay for that option. "If you're an adult and can face needles, it's better to get the injectable one," she said. "If you really can't face needles, nasal spray is okay."

6. Where do I go?

Kids under five years of age must get the flu vaccine at a health care provider's office or a participating public health unit.

Anyone five years of age and older can be vaccinated for free by trained pharmacists at approximately 2,600 pharmacies across the province.

A list of influenza clinics in Ontario can be found here.