Influenza is a contagious respiratory illness that can cause mild to severe illness. It can also make chronic health problems worse or lead to pneumonia, which could lead to death.
Worst flu outbreaks in recent years
Getting vaccinated against the flu, according to Netcare, will be even more important for South Africans this winter, which is likely to be colder than a normal winter. The health care company said nearly 30 children died in the United States after the Northern Hemisphere experienced one of its worst flu outbreaks in recent years.
Netcare said the flu vaccine that was made available to them did not provide adequate protection against two new strains of the virus, but a new vaccine, which is now available in South Africa, has been produced to match these changes in two of the three strains.
“The flu vaccine is usually available in South Africa in early March but delivery was delayed this year due to the fact that the vaccine had to be modified to better match the strains of flu that are currently doing the rounds,” said Dr Annamarie Richter, medical director at Netcare’s Primary Care Division.
She explained that each year flu vaccines are modified to comply with the recommendations of the World Health Organisation (WHO). "The vaccines available for the Northern Hemisphere’s flu season in 2014/2015 unfortunately proved to be only 23% effective in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).”
Dr Richter advises that South Africans get vaccinated as soon as possible. She said it takes about two weeks after vaccination for protective antibodies to develop.
Infographic: Five things you need to know about the flu vaccine
Debunking flu myths
There are also a few misconceptions about flu vaccinations, said Dr Pete Vincent of the Netcare Travel Clinics and Medicross Family Medical and Dental Centre in Tokai.
"It is impossible to get flu from a flu vaccine as it does not contain any of the live virus. There may be some mild side effects such as minor headaches, a slight fever or swelling and soreness at the injection site. However, a flu vaccination is still the most effective way to protect you and your loved ones against flu and its complications."
Dr Vincent highlighted three advantages of the flu vaccine:
- The vaccine not only shields you from getting flu, but it also protects those around you who are more vulnerable, such as the elderly, children, pregnant women and people with certain chronic illnesses such as diabetes, asthma, lung disease and heart disease.
- Although flu vaccines do not always completely prevent contraction of this virus, they do make your illness much milder if you get sick.
- The risk of hospitalisation and death from this virus is significantly reduced with flu vaccinations.
Doctor Robyn Holgate, from ER24, also urged people to get vaccinated. “It is never too late to vaccinate".
She said that she is particularly glad the correct strains were included in the vaccination for the coming season, even if it meant the vaccine arriving a little late.
Dr Holgate pointed out that the influenza vaccine is usually a preparation against the three most probable strains of the virus for the current flu season. She said the reason why people develop influenza even though they had the vaccine is because they may be infected with one of the strains not included in the current vaccine.
The difference between flu and a cold
She added that it is important to note that influenza is different from a cold. The key difference between colds and influenza is the very high temperatures one gets with the associated symptoms of Influenza, she said, adding that people usually develop influenza suddenly. Symptoms include:
Health24's resident doctor Dr Owen Wiese said people who are sick should cover their nose when sneezing or mouth when coughing and practice good personal hygiene.
He explained that flu spreads via droplets. "Being in close contact with someone who has a flu virus, makes it more likely that other people might be infected too."
Everyone should always wash their hands and carry sanitiser with them to sterilise their hands and any surfaces, said Dr Wiese.
Image: Syringe and vaccine from Shutterstock