No flu for fliers

— -- Earlier this month, on a layover at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, 48 year-old Tomás Cobbs carefully removed his suit jacket and tie, unbuttoned his shirt and slid it off his shoulder. Instead of getting weird looks from other passengers or getting tackled by airport police for his actions, Cobbs got poked with a needle.

And that was just fine with him.

In fact, Cobbs paid $35 for the privilege and was delighted that when he finally did get home to Fort Lauderdale he wouldn't have to waste time searching for a place to get a flu shot.

Cobbs spends about 250 days a year traveling for his job with luxury jewelry maker Cartier and, like many frequent travelers, he worries about getting sick while out on the road. But he doesn't always have time to get to a doctor. So when he saw a kiosk advertising flu shots right there in the airport concourse, he headed right over. "This is a godsend, I didn't even have to go out of my way to do it. They should have something like this in every airport!"

This year, it may seem as if they do.

Flu shots on the fly

A few years ago if you wanted a flu shot at an airport, you'd have to first locate the rare airport with an on-site medical clinic. Then you'd have to go find the clinic, which was usually tucked away somewhere off in a corner of the airport. Not many people took time for that.

Then the folks at the UIC Medical Center at O'Hare International Airport tried an experiment. They set up kiosks offering flu shots out on the concourses, near the restaurants, shops and gates. Flu shots on the fly, even priced a bit higher than pharmacy flu shots, turned out to be a big hit with travelers. Convenience was the big factor. "Last year," says O'Hare's UIC Medical Center director Dr. John Zautcke, "we gave more than 5,000 flu shots. This year, we expect to give close to 6,000 vaccinations. So it's clear that it's a good thing to do."

It's such a good thing to do that the service is spreading. Last year, travelers could get flu shots in or near a dozen or so airports stretching from New York to San Francisco. This year, the list of airports already hosting flu shot kiosks, or planning to start doing so shortly, has expanded to about two dozen. Included are Des Moines International, Cleveland Hopkins, Louisville International, Memphis International and Akron-Canton. Some airports are hiring outside companies to operate and staff the flu-shot kiosks, others are partnering with local hospitals or health departments. And at least two airports are once again planning to offer flu shots for free.

Last January, the San Diego International Airport partnered with a local non-profit organization, the Community Health Improvement Partners (CHIP), to offer free flu and pneumonia shots to travelers, airport employees and anyone who stopped by. During the one day event, more than 600 people got vaccinated. This year, they'll do it again — on January 16th.

Free flu shots, about 2000 of them, will also be available this year in Phoenix, at the Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX) from January 26 -30. It's the third year in a row the airport will join with the Arizona Department of Health Services, Maricopa County Department of Public Health, and The Arizona Partnership for Immunization (TAPI) to offer free flu vaccines to travelers as well as to airport and airline employees. The airport's Claire Stern says the project started when local health agencies realized they had an excess of vaccine. Now, it's a community tradition. And while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges everyone to think about getting their flu shot early, January is not too late. "The flu season can last as late as May," says Sky Harbor's Stern, "so getting a vaccine in January can still be very beneficial."

Serendipitous shots

Back in Atlanta, Marilyn Feldman and her husband, Gerald, weren't waiting to get their flu shots. They were on a two-hour layover on their way from Melbourne, Florida to Massachusetts for a visit with their kids and grandkids when they spotted the flu shot kiosk. "It was as serendipitous as can be," says Gerald Feldman. "We were surprised. No; we were shocked!" adds Marilyn Feldman. "We usually get flu shots at home. Sometimes we do it at a grocery store; sometimes at the doctor's office. But no one had them yet where we live. So we're delighted to get this done here at the airport so early in the season."

Serendipitous or shocking, frequent traveler Tomás Cobbs wants more: "Any service we can get between flights is wonderful. Getting my shoes shined. Getting my flu shot. What's next — teeth cleaning?"