Winter is coming. And no, nerds, not season four of Game of Thrones.
For most people, this usually means a week off work at worst. But for others the consequences can be far more serious: every year, 1,500 to 3,500 people die as a result of complications associated with the influenza virus.
Already, there are reports that this year’s flu season is expected to be unusually severe, with influenza A(H1N1) pandemic strain, A(H3N2) and influenza B circulating both overseas and at home.
Dr Vicky Sheppeard, director of the communicable diseases branch at NSW Health explained that while often, a bout of the flu is a minor inconvenience, for some high-risk individuals the virus can be life-threatening.
“For most people, they do catch it, and they catch it pretty regularly, but there are thousands of hospitalisations and hundreds of deaths each year from the flu,” she said. “Mostly that’s older people, but in recent years we’ve seen otherwise fit, young, healthy people put into intensive care with influenza.”
There are thousands of hospitalisations and hundreds of deaths each year from the flu.
Those with a high-risk of suffering the most serious effects of the flu – the elderly, Indigenous Australians, pregnant women, people with chronic illnesses like heart disease or severe asthma – the Australian government offers free flu vaccinations.
“It’s very effective in preventing people getting a severe flu bout, in preventing people from going into hospital,” said Dr. Sheppeard. “It’s more effective at that than preventing symptoms all together.”
Dr Alan Hampson BSc, MSc, M.D.(Hon), FASM, OAM, chairman of the the Influenza Specialist Group explained that the modern flu vaccination was effective at boosting people’s immune response to protect against the virus.
“In terms of preventing infection itself, it’s around 70 percent, or possibly even better,” he said. “It varies with age groups and how good people’s own immune systems are. So, the stronger your immune system, the better the response.”
Hampson explained that many of the commonly-held beliefs about the flu vaccine were in fact untrue. That vaccines actually infect patients with a live version of the flu virus a persistent misconception, said Hampson. Rather, vaccines work by fooling the body into producing antigens by making it think it has the flu.
“When you make a vaccine, you grow the virus, purify it, kill it, then you break it up into little pieces and formulate it into a vaccine,” he said. “This long-standing myth that a vaccine can give you influenza is totally wrong.”
This long-standing myth that a vaccine can give you influenza is totally wrong.
Many people also suffer from flu-like symptoms despite receiving the vaccination. Hampson points out that while the vaccination provides protection from some of the worst strains of influenza, it doesn’t protect against other respiratory viruses like the common cold which also circulate during winter.
“People still tend to confuse the common cold with influenza,” he said. “The most common differences between the cold and influenza in its full-blown state is that you’ll have a fever, generally, you’ll potentially have quite a high fever, you’ll have muscular aches and pains, you’ll have a headache, and a hard-dry cough.”
While at-risk individuals like the elderly are usually the ones being encouraged to get their free vaccine, younger people are also urged to be vigilant.
The most serious cases of the virus have affected those who’d normally be more resistant to the disease, resulting in hospitalisation and even death. “It’s tending to have its greatest impact on younger adults and middle-aged adults, which is not the normal pattern you tend to see,” said Dr. Hampson. “The message for younger people is that they shouldn’t see themselves as immune from influenza unless they’ve been vaccinated.”
It’s still a good idea to have the vaccine and boost your immunity against it.
To keep pace with the ever-changing viruses, the flu vaccination is reformulated every year based on World Health Organisation data on which strains are circulating. The 2014 seasonal influenza vaccination covers against the H1N1 pandemic strain, plus A(H3N2) and influenza B. For this reason, it’s important to top up with a new vaccine every year.
“Immunity from vaccination drops off fairly quickly,” explained Hampson. “So even if you’ve been vaccinated previously, or had this infection previously, it’s still a good idea to have the vaccine and boost your immunity against it.”
For anybody that’s unsure as to whether it’s a good idea for them to vaccinate against influenza this year, the most sensible point of call would be your local GP – not Dr. Google. “There’s some good information on Google, but there’s a whole lot of trash there as well. I’d go and talk to your local GP,” says Dr. Hampson. “There’s absolutely no alternative as far as I’m concerned.”
Click here for more information on the 2014 Seasonal Influenza Vaccine.