Beating the flu blues this season
The 2011 influenza season is upon us and people, more particularly high risk persons, are strongly encouraged to get vaccinated to avoid major complications such as pneumonia.
The change in the weather seasons is now visible as the grassy plains turn dry, the trees shed their leaves and the cold breeze can be felt in most parts of the country. In South Africa this signals the beginning of the flu season, which generally starts towards the end of May and reaches its peak towards the end of June.
People, more particularly high-risk persons, are strongly encouraged to get vaccinated to avoid major complications such as pneumonia this coming influenza season.
‘If you are healthy and you don’t have illnesses, it’s less likely that you will get complications. If you want to be vaccinated, that is fine. I think we are particularly concerned about pregnant women during the flu season, those with chronic illnesses like asthma, diabetes, HIV patients, people older than 65 years of age and any carers of at-risk people must get vaccinated’ says Professor Lucille Blumberg, the Deputy Director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
Dr. Mmatsie Manentsa, a medical officer from Zuzimpilo Clinic in Johannesburg, warned people whose immune system is compromised or lowered to take the flu seriously and get vaccinated. She explained that flu can be fatal for HIV-positive people if they are not vaccinated on time.
‘Influenza in HIV-positive people can be fatal because HIV-positive people have a lowered immune system. Therefore, they tend to have more complications of flu and they tend to suffer longer with the symptoms of flu. So, it is advisable for anybody with the HIV infection to get vaccinated against influenza because we do know that the complications can be severe in a person who is HIV-positive’ says Dr. Manentsa.
The flu vaccine is available for free at government clinics and if one can afford it, they can buy the vaccine at their nearest chemist for a nominal fee. Government clinics however, prioritise high-risk people.
‘From a public health view, we are always looking at health economics’¦ we look at things like: Is it beneficial to vaccinate everybody? And, obviously, from an economic point of view it is not financially feasible to do that. So, that is why government does prioritise those who are at most risk’
Dr. Manentsa explains.
If you were vaccinated last winter, you need to get another vaccination this year. As Professor Blumbuerg says, people need to get vaccinated every year as the vaccine tends to be slightly different each year.
‘Generally, the flu strains change a little bit every year, and that’s why we always have a new and slightly different vaccine to the previous year. That’s the nature of flu – there are minor changes from year to year. Two years ago we had a major change with a new strain H1N1. That was completely different to strains we’ve seen previously. The vaccine’s response only lasts nine months. Even if you were vaccinated last year you will need to be vaccinated again’ she says.
People are advised that like most medical interventions, the flu vaccine has some side-effects.
‘There are some minor side-effects. You can get pain in your arm, you can get a mild fever, a bit of muscle pain and we don’t advise it for people that are egg-allergic, but, really it’s a safe vaccine with very few problems. The other thing people believe is that ‘I got the vaccine and I still got sick’. The specific influenza vaccine will not protect against other causes of respiratory illness and we know there are many viruses and bacteria, particularly in the winter season, that cause a similar picture, but they are not flu. So, don’t expect the flu vaccine to protect you against that’ says Professor Lucille Blumberg.
The flu vaccine takes up two weeks to be effective, so it is important that the vaccine be taken before the influenza season starts. Zuzimpilo Clinic’s Dr. Manentsa encouraged people not to spread the flu virus and to stay away from populated areas if one has flu.
‘If you are sick, please remember what we call cough etiquette. When you cough, cover your mouth and nose. Wash your hands regularly and, if you are sick, consult your health care professional as soon as possible and stay away from work so that you don’t infect other people. When you are sick it is recommended that you stay off work or school’ concludes Dr. Manentsa.