Christina O'Haver, The Union Democrat

As flu season approaches, health officials are encouraging Mother Lode residents to get vaccinated and help prevent the spread of the disease that results in thousands of deaths nationwide each year.

The Tuolumne and Calaveras county public health departments are beginning to offer flu vaccinations, which many local pharmacies and private health clinics have already started administering.

Although flu season normally peaks in January and February, it can begin as early as October and continue as late as May, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We vaccinate people in the fall so that their immune systems are primed and ready to protect them," said Calaveras County Public Health Officer Dr. Dean Kelaita.

About 2,000 people receive flu shots during the two-day Tuolumne County health fair each year, according to Tuolumne County Public Health Officer Dr. Todd Stolp. The Tuolumne County Public Health Department is gearing up for the event, which will be held at the Mother Lode Fairgrounds on Oct. 16 and 17.

Individuals can receive free shots at the fair, but the health department accepts donations and Medicare.

Meanwhile, the Calaveras County Public Health Department's special flu clinics are under way.

The first clinic of the season was held at the San Andreas Library today and the next will be held at West Point Community Hall on Oct. 2 from 10 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.

The remaining three clinics will be held in Angels Camp, Arnold and Valley Springs throughout the month. For more information, call the Calaveras County Public Health Department at 754-6460.

"I'd like to see everybody in the community at our flu clinics this year," Kelaita said.

The shots cost $16 but the clinics will still immunize patients who cannot afford to pay and who do not have Medicaid.

Individuals can also receive vaccinations from their usual doctors or from local pharmacies such as Rite Aid, CVS, Walmart and Safeway. Save Mart is not currently offering them.

Kelaita said everyone who is at least six months old should get a flu shot, especially individuals who are over the age of 50 or who have chronic health problems.

He added that it is important to get the immunization every year because the serum is changed annually to keep up with mutations of the virus.

This year's flu shot will protect individuals against an influenza B virus and two strains of influenza A, which are more common, Stolp said. The influenza A strains are H1N1, also known as the "swine flu," and H3N2.

However, the vaccine will not protect individuals against the H3N2 variant viruses, according to Stolp.

As of Friday, 306 cases of H3N2v have been reported to the CDC, with most in Indiana and Ohio and none in California. Since July 2012, 16 people have been hospitalized with the strain and one person has died.

Stolp said the strain is not considered a pandemic because there have been few cases resulting from human-to-human transmission. The majority of the cases have been traced to contact between humans and pigs.

"For people raising swine, it's something to be aware of," Stolp said.

The flu vaccine is available as an injection or a nasal spray. The nasal spray is available to people between the ages of 2 and 49, with the exceptions of pregnant women and individuals with certain health issues. The health problems include immune system disorders, unstable asthma and severe sinusitis, Stolp said.

People who have received bone marrow transplants, or who will be in contact with those who have, should also avoid the nasal spray.

Flu symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, headaches, body aches, chills and fatigue.

Kelaita said individuals experiencing such symptoms should stay home, drink plenty of water, use fever-reducing medicine and seek medical attention if their symptoms worsen.

"Influenza is preventable, and the single most important way is to get a flu shot," he said.