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Although public health experts are predicting a mild flu season, they still are urging older citizens to start thinking about getting their flu shots.

"The important thing about the flu vaccine is not so much to prevent the flu, it is to prevent hospitalizations and pneumonia and death," said Dr. Robert Zorowitz of Wesley Woods Geriatric Hospital.Young people get the flu more often, but older ones suffer most from its complications because of their reduced resistance and inability to fight infection. The vaccine prevents the flu in 70 percent to 80 percent of the people exposed to it; the rest usually have milder cases.

Influenza strikes 25 million to 50 million Americans each year, killing 10,000 to 40,000, 80 percent of them elderly. Still, more than half of people 65 years and older do not get an annual flu shot.

This week's New England Journal of Medicine once again underscores the importance of the flu vaccine for older people.

Researchers studied the effects of vaccines in 25,000 elderly men and women in Minnesota.

Across the board, the vaccines resulted in significantly fewer deaths and hospitalizations for influenza and related pneumonia as well as for all chronic respiratory illnesses, saving millions of dollars in health-care costs.

The flu season begins in October, peaks in January and ends in April. Health officials recommend immunization in October or early November; it takes between two and three weeks for the vaccine to become effective. County health departments have specifics on when vaccines will be available.

Influenza tends to run in cycles, with type A and type B alternating as predominant strains. Type B should be more plentiful this season, although type A is expected to surface.

However, Harvey stressed that this is only a prediction. And anti-viral drugs such as Amantadine are not effective against type B flu strains.

"In years in which type B predominate, it is very important for elderly and high risk people to be vaccinated," said Dr. Joseph Bresee of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This year, the vaccine will cover three strains, A- Shandong, B-Panama and A-Texas.