The guy who designs our annual flu shots is getting his in October, and suggests you do too
- Vaccine experts typically say it's best to get your flu shot in late October or early November.
- A leading flu expert who helps design our annual shots says you might want to get yours earlier than that in 2022.
Richard Webby knows what the flu is up to.
As one of the world's leading influenza experts, he makes recommendations to the World Health Organization every year to help vaccine makers decide which flu strains will get included in our annual shots. His laboratory at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Tennessee also studies bird flu, and bird poop, in the hopes of preventing the next influenza pandemic.
So when Webby says he's recommending family and friends get their flu shots earlier than usual this year, it's worth paying attention.
"Maybe this year it's a better idea to go out, get it earlier rather than later," Webby told Insider, adding that he's planning to get his own shot "very, very early in October."
It's still impossible to know exactly what's going to happen during the US flu season this year, and when you might be most vulnerable to infection, but Webby said there are at least two clear reasons why he's getting his own shot imminently, rather than waiting several more weeks.
Reason 1: Flu cases peaked early in Australia and New Zealand
Traditionally, vaccine experts have recommended that people in the Northern Hemisphere get their flu vaccines in late October or in November in order to maintain a good level of protection throughout the entire flu season, which can last well into springtime.
But given what happened during winter in the Southern Hemisphere this year, Webby said it may be prudent to get your flu vaccine ASAP.
Flu activity in Australia picked up early this year, with cases peaking in the end of May and beginning of June, instead of July and August, which are the colder months when flu cases usually spike down under:
Webby said it's possible the same kind of scenario could play out in the Northern Hemisphere.
"We might expect that activity will pick up a little bit earlier than usual, back to pre-pandemic levels," he said. "My gut feeling is that if there is going to be an early flu season, this will be the one."
Reason 2: Most of us haven't had the flu in a while
Masking, distancing, and other measures adopted to stop the spread of COVID-19 basically got rid of the flu for a while.
"Because we haven't had flu for two years, overall that population immunity is just a little bit lower, and that's sort of allowing the virus to circulate at times that typically aren't optimal for it," Webby said.
That could be part of the reason why flu peaked early in Australia and New Zealand. Infectious disease experts are seeing the same phenomenon play out with other seasonal viruses, like RSV.
Not all experts are worried about an early flu spike just yet. Florian Krammer, a virologist at Mount Sinai in New York, says he's going to do what he does every year and get his flu shot in late November, unless flu activity picks up dramatically where he lives before then. Part of the reason for his wait-and-see approach is that the 2021-2022 flu season dragged out until late May and early June in some areas of the US.
"It's always a bit of a trade-off," Webby said. "There's some data out there that suggests by the end of the flu season, the effectiveness of a flu vaccine is waning a little bit. So it's sort of that battle between getting it too early, or too late."
Don't sweat the precise timing too much — any flu shot is better than nothing
If you do get your flu shot "too early," that's still OK. Research shows flu shots can still help make a case of the flu milder, even if you do get sick later on.
The antiviral drug Tamiflu also helps shorten the course of an illness (when prescribed within the first 48 hours of infection) and it reduces your odds of developing dangerous complications like pneumonia. Tamiflu can also be prescribed preventatively for people who've been exposed to others with the flu, like family members living in the same household.
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