Why have a flu vaccine?
‘To jab or not to jab’ that is the question. Every year there is a debate about flu vaccine injections. And yet up to 11 000 people die from the flu in South Africa annually. And yet the flu vaccination is so readily available and paid for by most medical aid schemes. So why is it that more people don’t get vaccinations?
Gerhard Van Emmenis, Principal Officer of Bonitas Medical Fund says, ‘There are a number of reasons. These include: “I don’t get flu’, ‘the vaccine doesn’t work’, ‘it will hurt my arm’ or ‘the vaccine will give me flu’. However, there are very good clinical reasons why you should.’
The Bonitas medical team unpack:
- what ‘flu’ is
- how it affects your body and
- compelling reasons why you should consider getting a flu vaccination this year.
An influenza virus causes flu. The virus changes each year or is a mutation of an existing one. This virus lives in an infected person’s nose and throat and activates when you speak, sneeze or cough. It becomes infectious, which means it can make someone else sick too and spreads easily.
How the flu affects your body
So while the symptoms of flu (high temperatures, body pain, sore throat, tiredness, loss of appetite) are the same year in and year out, some flu strains may cause the symptoms to last for a longer time and be more severe. The flu can also bring headaches, muscle pain, vomiting and diarrhoea. In people with weaker immune systems, the flu is even more serious.
- Primary influenza virus pneumonia occurs when the flu virus causes severe lung damage. You’ll start with the usual symptoms of flu, but the fever persists, your cough worsens and you’ll become extremely short of breath. In severe cases, you may have a bluish tinge and become confused from a lack of oxygen.This form of pneumonia needs hospital care.
- Secondary bacterial pneumonia is more common than viral pneumonia and occurs when bacteria cause a secondary infection in the lungs. Typical symptoms include recurrence of fever, shortness of breath and secretions during coughing four to 14 days after the symptoms have almost disappeared.
- The flu can cause otitis media (a middle ear infection) and croup in children. In most cases, the virus causes the ear infection, so antibiotics are seldom necessary.
- In rare cases, inflammation of the muscles (myositis) can occur. It’s more common in children. Painful tender leg muscles are also a common symptom. Also, very rarely, the heart muscle may become inflamed (myocarditis). Symptoms include tiredness, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, a rapid pulse and discomfort in the chest.
Why the flu vaccine is important
The vaccine is necessary because the flu virus changes every year, so your vaccination from last year will not keep you safe this year. The injection helps your immune system fight off the virus by producing antibodies – little immune system soldiers that battle the flu virus.
To protect yourself properly, you and your family should get a vaccination before winter arrives.
Some people have the misconception that the flu shot can give you the flu. According to the Centre for Disease Control, ‘A flu shot cannot cause flu. Flu vaccines given with a needle are currently made either with flu vaccine viruses that have been ‘inactivated’ and are not infectious, or with no flu vaccine viruses at all. The most common side-effects from the shot are soreness, redness, tenderness or swelling where the shot was given. Serious allergic reactions to flu vaccines are very rare.’
Allergic to eggs?
Most flu vaccines contain egg protein but there are egg free options available. So, if you have an egg allergy or are a vegan, speak to you doctor and ensure you use an alternative vaccination.
When to get vaccinated?
‘The sooner the better, before the winter flu season hits us,’ says MogologoloPhasha, Chairman of the Independent Community Pharmacy Association (ICPA). ‘Many people die every year because of complications from flu, with most of the deaths occurring in high risk people,’ explains Phasha. ‘These are pregnant women; children between the ages of six months and five years; people older than 65; those with HIV/AIDS, and chronic disease sufferers.’
Still not convinced? Read on.
- The flu (which started in Australia) in the UK and America has been particularly severe this season with many deaths and many more hospitalisations
- Flu viruses spread very quickly from person to person
- Even if the flu vaccine is not 100% effective against the current flu strain it will reduce your chances of getting the flu and, if you do get it, it will be a great deal milder
- More importantly, by having the flu vaccine you will protect others, via what is called ’herd immunity’. Others may be vulnerable family members such as small babies and the elderly as well as those who are immuno-compromised.
We don’t know if the flu will be as severe in South Africa as it has been in other countries, but we can be prepared by having a flu vaccination, regular handwashing and avoiding contact with people who have the flu.
Bonitas is the second largest open medical scheme in South Africa. Administered by Medscheme Holdings (Pty) Ltd, Bonitas aims to make quality healthcare accessible to all South Africans and offers a wide range of plans that are simple to understand and easy to use. The Fund has the largest GP network in South Africa, a Specialist Network and a host of supplementary benefits paid from risk and carefully crafted managed care programmes to cover chronic conditions, cancer, diabetes and HIV/AIDS. This allows members to derive real value for money and stretch their benefits as far as possible.