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Preventing influenza with a flu shot is a shared responsibility for all Canadians

The arrival of fall triggers a familiar ritual across the country. Summer clothes are put away, patio furniture is hauled indoors, and sweaters and coats are pulled out of hiding and readied for the cold months ahead.

For many Canadians, there's another ritual that's becoming as much a part of autumn as raking away all those rust- and gold-coloured leaves: getting a flu vaccine.

"The flu vaccine is the most effective way to protect yourself and the people around you from the influenza virus," says Victor Wong, a Toronto-based pharmacist and pharmacy owner at national drugstore retailer Shoppers Drug Mart. "The flu vaccine has been shown to reduce the chances of getting the flu by about 70 to 90 per cent in healthy adults."

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) recommends all Canadians over the age of six months to get immunized against influenza, a respiratory illness that strikes between 10 per cent to 20 per cent of the population each year. About 20,000 Canadians are hospitalized and between 2,000 to 8,000 die every year because of the flu.

Flu symptoms include headache, fever, cough, runny noise, chills, aching muscles, and extreme fatigue. Most people recover within a week or two, but elderly people, very young children, and people with weakened immune systems can become seriously ill for extended periods or worse, die as a result of getting the flu.

While more Canadians are getting flu shots today compared to a decade ago, the last five years have seen the country's influenza immunization numbers fluctuate and decline. Last year, 8.3 million Canadians received a flu shot, compared to 8.6 million in 2008 and a peak of 8.9 million in 2009, according to Statistics Canada.

"There's still resistance to the flu shot among Canadians, partly because some people think that only those with chronic conditions, elderly people and young children are at risk," observes Mr. Wong. "But the fact is, we are all at risk of getting the flu and spreading it to those around us. So if everyone got vaccinated – even those who are healthy and have a lesser chance of getting the flu – then we can ultimately reduce the spread of the influenza virus."

It's also important to get a flu shot every year, says Mr. Wong, because the influenza virus is always changing and each year's vaccine targets specific flu virus strains.

Flu season in Canada typically runs from November to April. PHAC recommends getting the flu vaccine, between October and December before influenza season goes into full swing.

But even if you miss this window, you can still get the vaccine in the first few months of the new year, says Mr. Wong, noting that it takes two weeks for the vaccine to take full effect.

"Your chances of getting flu towards springtime becomes less likely, but getting the flu vaccine is still a good idea because people do get flu during the warmer months."