Fighting the flu season: Two experts answer key questions about the flu shot

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  • South Africa’s flu season is approaching – and now's the time to get your flu shot
  • A seasonal flu vaccine is available every year to give you the best protection against influenza
  • Two experts answered the most frequently asked questions about the vaccine

Each year, the influenza (flu) virus affects millions of people around the world. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), globally, three to five million people experience severe flu every year.

The flu can also be deadly – according to the WHO, it causes up to 650 000 deaths worldwide.

South Africa experiences between 7 000 to 11 000 deaths and 40 000 hospitalisations for flu each year, as indicated in a Spotlight article. 

The good news is that since these viruses have existed for a long time, there has been enough research to understand how they spread, who is at risk of severe disease, and how infection can be prevented.

Health24 spoke to two experts – Dr Angelique Coetzee, chairperson of the South African Medical Association (SAMA), and professor Sean Wasserman, infectious diseases specialist at Groote Schuur Hospital, University of Cape Town – about getting the flu shot, who needs it, when they should get it, and the common side effects of the jab.

Why a new flu vaccine every year?

There are four main types of influenza viruses: A, B, C, and D. According to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), influenza A and influenza B viruses are responsible for the flu season.

The viruses are known to accumulate tiny genetic changes each year. As a result, scientists have to determine which strains are likely to be most prevalent in the coming year and update the vaccines based on this.

The flu vaccine is the most effective way of preventing infection and reducing hospital admissions related to flu complications. They work by activating the immune system to produce proteins, also known as antibodies.

Should you encounter the influenza virus, your body will then be able to use these antibodies to fight off infection. As a result, you’ll avoid the flu completely, or you'll probably have only mild symptoms, such as a runny nose and a cough.

When should you get the flu shot?

“People should preferably get vaccinated before the start of the flu season, which on average is around mid-May, but ranges from the end of April to mid-June,” said Wasserman.

“In general, we recommend that people get vaccinated as soon as the vaccine becomes available, and at any time, even after the flu season/winter has started.”

This is because it takes around 10 to 14 days for the vaccine to become effective and the body to start building immunity, said Wasserman.

Who needs to get the vaccine?

Everyone should try to get the flu shot, but it’s particularly important for certain groups of people such as older adults, people with chronic medical conditions, healthcare workers, and pregnant women, advised Wasserman.

The flu vaccine is also encouraged for children, especially if your child attends creche or school, as infection can also cause serious complications in young children, said Coetzee.

Who should avoid getting the flu shot?

The flu vaccine should not be given to infants under six months old, said Wasserman.

If you’ve had previous anaphylactic (severe allergic) reactions to the vaccine or its components, you should avoid it, he cautioned.

It should also be avoided in those with severe egg allergy as it is manufactured in chicken eggs and, therefore, contain a small amount of egg protein.

Is the flu shot safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women?

Yes, the vaccine is safe in pregnancy and breastfeeding, and protects both the mother and baby, said Wasserman and Coetzee.

Are there different types of flu vaccines in SA?

Two types of the inactivated flu vaccine are available in South Africa, said Wasserman, and both are given intramuscularly (a needle is used to inject the vaccine into the muscle). 

“One type contains four strains (quadrivalent) of the dominant forms from the Northern Hemisphere season and the other contains three strains (trivalent),” explained Wasserman.

Both vaccines are effective, he assured, but the quadrivalent vaccine may provide more protection in children and possibly high-risk adults.

What side effects should you expect?

The vaccine is generally well tolerated, said Wasserman. According to the two experts, the most common side effects include pain and redness at the site of injection. 

“Occasionally, people may experience transient body pains and tiredness,” added Wasserman.

Coetzee explained that these side effects usually occur within the first 72 hours after receiving the vaccine.

It is important to note that while the flu shot can cause symptoms similar to those of flu, it cannot actually give you the flu.

Can the flu shot and Covid vaccine be administered at the same time?

Since the flu vaccination season is overlapping with phase two of South Africa’s Covid-19 vaccination programme, which is set to begin on 17 May 2021, it’s important to know that you should not receive the two vaccines at the same time.

Although the safety of providing the flu vaccine and Covid vaccines together has not been studied, and there is no reason to expect a problem, Wasserman said that the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) recommends against being vaccinated with both shots on the same day.

“People [should] wait at least 14 days between vaccinations. It makes no difference which vaccine is received first (although Covid vaccination is the main priority, particularly for those at higher risk for severe Covid),” said Wasserman.

Where you can get the flu shot

According to Business Insider South Africa, seasonal flu vaccinations are already widely available. 

Major pharmacy chains including Clicks (R115), Dis-Chem (R115), and Shoprite (via its MediRite pharmacies – at R109) are currently administering the quadrivalent Vaxigrip Tetra flu vaccine, which offers protection against the four most prevalent influenza strains currently circulating in the Southern Hemisphere. All three groups also accept major medical aids. 

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WATCH | How much do you know about the flu shot?

READ | There are lots of myths about flu: We debunk six of them

READ | Health tip – cold, flu or allergy?

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