With the earlier-than-normal availability of seasonal flu shots and approval still pending for a swine-flu vaccine, there are more questions than ever about this year's flu season.

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As of this month, 522 have died from the swine flu in the United States. Yet the seasonal flu takes the lives of about 36,000 people each year.

Now, clinics, health organizations and retail outlets are gearing up to make seasonal-flu vaccines available.

With the earlier-than-normal availability of seasonal-flu shots and approval pending for a swine-flu vaccine, there are more questions than ever about this year’s flu season — from how many shots to get to who should get them and when.

Some of the most common questions that health providers are hearing:

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Q: Will the seasonal-flu shot protect me from swine flu?

A: No. The seasonal-flu shot does not protect against the swine-flu virus, clinically known as H1N1. The seasonal-flu vaccine protects against three viruses, but the vaccine changes each year as scientists estimate which strains are circulating in other parts of the world.

The swine-flu vaccine being developed is different from the seasonal-flu shot. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the swine-flu vaccine is not designed to replace yearly flu shots and is intended to be used alongside it. Both types of vaccinations can be administered on the same day.

Q: How many shots should I get this year?

A: The total number of shots recommended this year is unclear. Those who regularly are vaccinated for the seasonal flu should do the same this year.

Health officials anticipate the H1N1 vaccine will require two shots, but no final decision has been made. The vaccine currently is in trials in various cities, including Seattle. So far, the CDC has found no serious side effects from the trials.

Q: Who should be getting the shots?

A: The seasonal-flu and the H1N1 vaccines have different targets.

Seasonal-flu vaccines are recommended for anyone older than 65, children between 6 months and 18 years old and anyone with chronic medical conditions. Those populations are more likely to suffer complications caused by the flu.

For H1N1, however, those at higher risk include pregnant women, health-care workers, people in close contact with infants, and people 6 months to 24 years old. After these groups, those between the ages of 25 and 64 years of age should get the vaccine.

Unlike seasonal flu, people older than 65 are actually less likely to contract the swine-flu virus. According to the CDC, about one-third of older adults already have antibodies against the virus. They should get the swine-flu vaccine only after higher-risk groups have been vaccinated.

Q: When should I get the seasonal-flu shot? If I am vaccinated now, before the flu season even starts, won’t the immunity wear off later?

A: Public-health officials say the seasonal-flu vaccine should be obtained as soon as possible. According to officials, there is no scientific proof that a seasonal-flu shot will wear off. Studies have shown that antibodies developed from a seasonal-flu shot lasts eight to 12 months and offer protection through the entire flu season.

The only people who should get two seasonal-flu shots are children younger than 9 years old who never have been vaccinated previously.

Q: When will the H1N1 vaccine be available?

A: Officials are saying the H1N1 vaccine will be available in mid-October, when they expect to have about 45 million doses delivered. An additional 20 million doses are expected to be delivered weeks later. State and local public-health departments will determine how to get the vaccine first to those at highest risk of complications from the virus, and then to those who are at less risk.

Q: Where can I get a seasonal-flu shot?

A: Safeway is now offering the seasonal-flu vaccines.

The vaccine should be available in public-health clinics in King County in September. People can call to see if flu shots are available with their providers. Check www.kingcounty.gov/healthservices/health.aspx for more information.

In Snohomish County, appointments can be made to get the vaccine at the health district’s main clinic in Everett and South County clinics. Check www.snohd.org for more information.

Information on both seasonal flu and the swine flu can be found at www.flu.gov.

Marnette Federis: 206-464-2521 or mfederis@seattletimes.com

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