As the winter season approaches, the flu virus begins to spread rapidly, posing a significant health risk to individuals and communities worldwide. On the African continent, the risk is even higher due to limited access to healthcare and the prevalence of other diseases that weaken the immune system. That’s why this week (24 to 30 April), is recognised as Africa Vaccination Week, highlighting the importance of vaccinations in preventing diseases and promoting health.
While the flu may seem like a minor health issue, the World Health Organisation found that annual influenza epidemics result in approximately five million severe illness cases and about 600 000 respiratory deaths globally.
According to Justine Lacy, Clinical Advisor of Profmed Medical Scheme, getting a flu vaccination is crucial in protecting yourself and those around you. She says it is also vital to get vaccinated sooner rather than later and advises South Africans to consider a flu vaccination annually.
She says in South Africa, flu circulation is highly seasonal and circulates during the winter. The average season starts the first week of June; however, it could start as early as April or as late as July. The season typically lasts about 12 weeks but can be as short as seven weeks or as long as 25 weeks. It is advisable to get vaccinated now, before the season begins. But there are a few myths to get out of the way.
According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), getting a flu vaccination can reduce the risk of flu illness by up to 60%, and even if a person still gets sick, the vaccine can make the illness milder and reduce the risk of complications. This is especially important for individuals with underlying health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, and heart disease, who are at a higher risk of severe complications if they contract the flu.
Lacy confirms that the flu vaccine does not afford 100% immunity against influenza but protects only against the major strains circulating and there is a small chance one could still experience milder strains of the flu like the RSV virus. However, this is likely to be a much milder form and should be easily treatable and short lived.
“The idea is that you are injecting tiny little bits of the virus so your body can create antibodies. When the real virus comes along your body should be immune and can fight the virus. The vaccine is currently available and can be administered by your healthcare professional or at a pharmacy,” says Lacy.
She says flu vaccines are highly recommended for people younger than 5 years, 65 years and older, adults with a chronic condition, especially respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses and pregnant women, which protects the mother and the new-born child.
Lacy reiterates that the flu vaccination will not protect from contracting COVID-19. “It won’t protect you from other viruses, but consider the possibility that you can in fact contract COVID-19 and Influenza at the same time. That would be a deadly combination of infection that you could avoid.”
In addition to co-infection, which is rare, getting a flu vaccination will help ease the inevitable strain on our healthcare system, which is something Lacy believes we are all responsible for upholding in these trying and unprecedented times.
“If you have a medical aid, there is no excuse. The flu vaccine should be covered. If you don’t have medical insurance, the vaccine costs around R100 and it will reduce hospital admissions for respiratory illnesses such as pneumonia,” adds Lacy.
Remember call in advance before going to get your flu vaccine at the pharmacy or the doctor’s office to ensure that there is adequate stock available for everyone and also to continue to practice social distancing.
With or without a vaccination, Lacy says prevention is still the best cure. “Continue basic hygiene practices, wash your hands, remember coughing and sneezing etiquette, and limit contact with other people where you can. Going forward, these are the lessons we are not likely to forget any time soon.”