Those promotions for flu shots that have begun appearing around Tucson are not premature - now is a good time to get immunized, health officials say.

"It is not too early. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says physicians should start giving shots as soon as it (vaccine) arrives," said Dr. Karen Lewis, medical director for Arizona's immunization program. "I've been told by pharmaceutical companies that they have started shipping it. So it is available. ... As soon as you can get it, go ahead and get it."

Since 2010, federal and state health officials have recommended flu shots for everyone older than six months, aside from those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.

Nearly half of Americans received a flu shot last season, and public health officials are aiming for a higher percentage this season.

Also, nearly two-thirds of health-care workers were vaccinated last season, and many vaccination advocates say that's not nearly good enough.

A flu vaccine takes two to three weeks before it will become effective, and then it will last the entire season, Lewis said. She noted a higher-dose vaccine is available for people older than 65.

The CDC says flu cases start picking up in the U.S. in late October. In Arizona, the season more typically starts in November or December, though in recent years the surge did not begin until January, Lewis said. The season can last through February or March.

Lewis stressed that flu cases occur year-round - the cases just dramatically increase during flu season.

"We have travel between the Southern Hemisphere and the Northern Hemisphere, so we have a little bit of influenza during the summer," Lewis said.

The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat, and lungs. It can cause mild to severe illness, and sometimes can lead to death. The CDC says the best way to prevent the flu is by getting a flu vaccine each year. Most experts believe that flu viruses spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk.

Overall, 63 percent of health-care workers in the U.S. were immunized against flu last season. The CDC recommends all health-care workers receive an annual influenza vaccination, except for those with medical exemptions.

Additionally, several medical organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Physicians, support annual mandated influenza vaccines for health-care workers who have direct patient contact.

None of the Tucson area's eight community hospitals mandate flu vaccines for its employees, though the vaccines are available and encouraged at all of them.

Banner Health, which has about 28,000 employees in the Phoenix area, will begin mandatory flu vaccines for all of its staff members this month as part of its "No Flu for You" program. An impetus for the change was Colorado's recent passage of a state rule that requires flu shots for health-care workers. Banner Health has facilities in Colorado.

Lewis noted that the flu vaccine percentages for health-care workers nationwide have improved.

"For physicians it's 84 percent, and for nurses it's 83 percent," she said. "It's wonderful that health-care workers are realizing that they can spread influenza to the patients, and in order to protect patients they need to have their yearly flu vaccine."

Before 2010, public health officials had only recommended flu shots to those at high risk - the very young and very old.

"They were balancing that with the supply of vaccine," Lewis said. "They finally said, 'Let's have everybody get it.' Even though not everyone is high risk, everyone is around somebody who is high risk. So you protect the people around you by getting the influenza vaccine. You avoid being off work for a week."

Since July 2012, 288 people from 10 states are reported to have been infected with a variant swine flu virus - H3N2. The CDC says there have been 15 hospitalizations for H3N2 and one death associated with the virus.

Investigations indicate that the main risk factor for infection is exposure to pigs, mostly in fair settings. Federal data show most of the new swine flu cases have been in Indiana and Ohio.

The current flu vaccine does not protect against H3N2, though a seed virus that could be used in a vaccine to immunize against it has been developed, CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said.

But he said there would need to be evidence of widespread and sustained human-to-human transmission before a move to produce a vaccine would be made.

Illnesses from H3N2 have so far has been mostly mild with symptoms similar to seasonal flu, the CDC says.

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Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at or 573-4134.