Although it may seem an odd time to be highlighting the importance of flu vaccination, with the longest day of summer just gone, nonetheless the beginning of the flu season is only three months away, so now may be a pertinent time to remind ourselves how important this vaccination is.
Flu is a viral respiratory illness, spread through droplet infection, i.e. coughing or sneezing. It is highly infectious to close contacts. Symptoms are those typical of an acute upper respiratory tract infection, with cough, aches and pains, and unpleasant temperature symptoms. Occasionally sufferers may report gastrointestinal disturbance including vomiting and diarrhoea. This is more common in children. Thankfully, in the majority of healthy individuals, the illness lasts a maximum of seven days, with no long term issues.
However, in certain higher risk groups, and indeed sometimes individuals who would be considered fit and healthy, complications ensue. These are often mild and self resolving, and include bronchitis, ear infections and sinusitis. However, a group will develop serious and potentially life threatening illnesses, including pneumonia or meningitis.
Currently there is a yearly vaccination programme, which can be accessed through your local general practice surgery as well as several pharmacies. We know that there are several strains of flu and that these are constantly changing and evolving. This is why it is important to be vaccinated every year. And although the vaccine is effective against roughly 50-60% of cases, which may seem a low figure, if you develop the flu despite this precaution, symptoms are milder and their duration usually shorter than in those not vaccinated.
High risk groups who are more likely to develop the flu have been identified, and certainly anyone in these should aim to have the vaccination yearly. The list is long, but includes the following broad categories; those over sixty five, all pregnant women, and anyone with an underlying health condition, notably heart and lung diseases, but also those with renal or liver failure, and those with debilitating neurological disease, for example Multiple Sclerosis. Recently it has been recognised that morbid obesity, that being a BMI greater than 40, is also a risk factor for complications.
The uptake of the flu vaccination is often disappointingly low and can be attributed to some misconceptions which I will hopefully debunk. Firstly, having the vaccine does not cause the flu itself. The body reacts to the vaccine by creating antibodies, so that when the individual next encounters the flu antigen, it will be recognised. So for a few days after vaccination you may feel slightly under the weather, in a manner similar to any mild viral illness. As mentioned above, although the vaccine is not 100% effective, flu symptoms are milder in those vaccinated than those not. A sobering thought is that 1/3 of flu related deaths occur in those who would be considered fit and well and who do not fit into any of the high risk categories.
If you are offered vaccination, it would seem beneficial to accept it. Greater uptake of the vaccine will also confer herd immunity, so that those who are not vaccinated are less likely to come into contact with flu. As front line health care workers, if we become ill and unable to work, greater strain will be put on a health service at a time of year where demands are already extremely high. It is a choice which may benefit you as well as those around you.