The flu season is just around the corner, and while it is impossible to predict whether any season is going to be worse than others, we should not be complacent about flu prevention. Each year more than 4000 Australians are hospitalised from the influenza virus, and unfortunately around 85 Australians die as a result.
The nasty H3N2 strain responsible for a major spike in cases around Australia last year is now causing mayhem in the US. It has been declared a public health emergency in the state of New York, where almost 20,000 cases of flu have been reported – more than four times the number of cases last winter. So we should start preparing now (if you haven’t already) to avoid a repeat of the epidemic of last year and the recent epidemic in the US.
The Influenza Virus
The influenza virus infects the nose, throat and sometimes the lungs. It is spread through infected droplets in the air, but can also be carried on the hands. The symptoms include a fever, sore throat and aching muscles. Although most flu victims recover within a few days to two weeks, some develop debilitating and even life-threatening complications, such as pneumonia and bronchitis. Even after recovery, the flu can cause lingering post-viral fatigue and weakness.
The Flu Vaccination
Vaccination is the most effective defence against the flu. The flu vaccine contains inactive (killed) viruses, so it is not possible to get the flu from the vaccine. However some people do get a low-grade fever as the immune system gears up to recognise the virus. These general reactions to the flu vaccine usually occur 6 to 12 hours after immunisation and resolve quickly.
Immunisation should occur between March and May, before the onset of the flu season. Most cases of influenza occur within a six to eight week period during winter and spring. It takes about two weeks for the flu vaccine to be fully protective, and lasts for up to one year.
A new vaccine is developed and given each year to keep up with the changing influenza viruses. The influenza virus has a unique ability to change its surface structure, allowing it to escape recognition by the body’s immune system. This year’s vaccine covers this latest H2N3 strain as well as other prevalent strains. Inevitably, some people who are vaccinated will form victim to the flu anyway as the vaccine may not always protect against all strains of the influenza virus circulating in the community.
Who should have the flu vaccine?
The flu vaccine is available to anyone over the age of six months. It's free for people most at risk of severe flu infection:
* People aged 65 and over
* Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over the age of 15
* Pregnant women
* People over the age of six months with heart disease, severe asthma, chronic lung condition, a chronic illness that required hospitalisation in the past year, people with impaired immunity, and people with diabetes or a disease of the nervous system.
Immunisation is also recommended (but not free) for people who work or live in close contact with people who have reduced immunity, or who can put vulnerable people at risk of infections (such as people who work with children)
The flu vaccine can be given to children over six months old. One brand of vaccine – Fluvax – is no longer registered for use in children under five.
Who should not have the flu vaccine?
There are some people who should not be vaccinated. The flu vaccine contains tiny amounts of egg protein. Studies suggest there is a very low risk of reaction if those with egg allergies have the jab, however tell your GP about an egg allergy before you are immunised.
Others who should not be vaccinated are babies under six months and people with a documented allergic reaction to the flu shot, or to any components of the vaccine, should not be immunised.
While the vaccination is a huge part of your protection against the flu, it is part of a package that includes good hygiene, exercise and diet. You can also boost your immune system with a dose of antioxidants, such as Vitamin C and Echinacea.