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A Guide to the Annual Flu Shot

13 July, 2015
FLU-THUMB

Did you know that the average Australian adult gets 2-4 colds each year? The average for children is 5-10! There are about 200 different cold viruses and there is no vaccine. Typical symptoms include coughing, fever, sore throat, sneezing, blocked or runny nose and general congestion.

Influenza, which is caused by a different virus, affects your nose, throat, and sometimes your lungs. Symptoms are usually more severe and last longer than cold symptoms, and can include sore throat, fever and muscle aches.

Unlike the common cold, influenza can cause severe illness, especially in the elderly, pregnant women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and very young children. In serious cases, it can lead to pneumonia, bronchitis, and other life-threatening complications.

 

Each year it is estimated that 13,500 Australians are hospitalised with influenza, and it counts for 3,000 annual deaths in Australians aged over 50 years.

Causes

Influenza viruses are generally spread from person to person via coughing or sneezing. A person can also become infected by touching a contaminated surface before touching their mouth or nose. Unfortunately, it’s possible to pass on the infection before you even know you are sick, as symptoms can take days to appear.

Symptoms

Symptoms of the flu can include tiredness, fever, headache, coughing, sore throat, sneezing, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, poor appetite, diarrhoea and vomiting. Most people who catch it will suffer from mild illness before shaking it off over the course of a few weeks. Some, however, develop longer-term health problems that can see them hospitalised with a chest or sinus infection, bronchitis, pneumonia or liver complications.

Prevention

There are a number of ways to increase your chances of avoiding the flu, such as:

Good hygiene: Wash your hands regularly with soap and warm water, and use tissues to cover your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing. Put used tissues into the bin immediately.

Regular cleaning: Keep commonly used surfaces clean, such as your keyboard, telephone and door handles.

Diet: Eat a range of nutrient and antioxidant rich foods known for their immune-boosting abilities.

Vaccination: To immunise yourself from the most common current flu strains, get an annual flu shot.

About flu vaccination

In 1933, researchers discovered that viruses (influenza types A, B and C) were resulting in flu, as opposed to the previously suspected bacterium, haemophilus. Work began on developing a vaccine, and in 1938 the flu vaccine was used for the first time to protect the U.S. military forces during World War II. This vaccine was not nearly as purified as today’s modern vaccines, and men commonly spoke of developing symptoms such as fever, aches and fatigue. Debate about its purpose and efficacy ensued, and led to further development on the vaccine. Today, vaccination is a commonly used practice, and is recommended by the Australian Government Department of Health, as the single most effective protection against influenza.

New strains of influenza appear frequently and, as a result, modern flu vaccinations change from year to year. Influenza surveillance centres around the world monitor the circulating influenza strains, and genetic data is collected as new mutations are identified. The World Health Organisation then makes a decision on the top three strains to protect against. In the case of a pandemic, an additional vaccine may be created to protect against a particularly virulent or widespread strain of influenza. 

The National Seasonal Influenza Immunisation Program for 2015 commenced on 20 April, later than usual. This was due to a change in two strains from the 2014 vaccine, which resulted in manufacturing delays. The delay has not affected vaccine supply volumes, and no vaccine shortages are expected.

The influenza vaccine for the Australian 2015 influenza season contains the following three virus strains:

  • A (H1N1): an A/California/7/2009 (H1N1) - like virus, 15 µg HA per dose
  • A (H3N2): an A/Switzerland/9715293/2013 (H3N2) - like virus, 15 µg HA per dose
  • B: a B/Phuket/3073/2013 - like virus, 15 µg HA per dose

Under the National Influenza Vaccination Program, free seasonal influenza vaccine is available to the following people:

  • All people aged 65 years and over
  • All Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged 6 months to 5 years (new)
  • All Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 15 years and over
  • Pregnant women
  • People aged 6 months and over with medical conditions predisposing to severe influenza, namely cardiac disease, chronic respiratory problems, frequent hospitalisation, neurological conditions and impaired immunity.

Diets that are low in protein, too low in calories (less than 1,200 per day), or contain too many processed foods can have an impact on your immune system. Sleep deprivation and stress are other contributors, so if you are worried you are at risk of contracting the flu and do not fall into a ‘high-risk’ group, talk to your doctor.

It is strongly recommended that those working in the healthcare sector or those living with someone who has a chronic illness be immunised also. You may also wish to look into it if you are travelling overseas. The flu shot usually costs around $25 for those not covered by the National Influenza Vaccination Program.

Those vaccinated in 2014 will need to be vaccinated again this year, however if you have ever had a severe adverse effect, be sure to seek the advice of your doctor before having another shot.

What those in favour of the flu vaccine say

  • Flu vaccination is the easiest and most efficient way to protect against influenza. It has the potential to save thousands of lives. Evidence shows that the flu vaccination can provide up to 90% protection in healthy people.

     

  • The composition of the vaccine changes every year to protect against contamination trends and new strains.

     

  • The flu vaccine is made from an inactive form of the flu virus, which cannot give you influenza. It does not contain any live viruses, therefore it cannot result in you getting the flu. You may get a slight temperature and aching muscles for a couple of days, however this is rare.

     

  • This year’s vaccine has more than the H1N1 virus strain. Two other strains have been added after they were deemed possible contaminants in the Northern Hemisphere.

     

  • There is now an option for healthy people aged between 2 and 49 years to use a nasal spray flu vaccine. Speak to your doctor to see if this is available for you.

     

  • Vaccination is especially important for healthcare workers, who can pass on or get flu from their patients.

     

  • Vaccines generally pose no risk to pregnant women or breastfeeding mothers. Speak with your doctor for more information.

     

  • The flu shot offers protection for an entire season.

     

  • All vaccines currently available in Australia must pass stringent safety testing before being approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).

What those against flu shots say

  • The flu vaccine is cultivated inside of chicken eggs, so if you’re allergic to eggs it could be classed as dangerous.

     

  • No vaccine is 100% safe. Risks are generally very low, but you should always ask the advice of your doctor before receiving any vaccinations.

     

  • Children have stronger adverse effects than adults due to their smaller body and surface area.

     

  • Influenza viruses aren’t the only reason for flu. Just because you have the shot, doesn’t mean you won’t get sick.

     

  • Protection isn’t immediate. It can take about two weeks for the vaccine to kick in and offer protection.

     

  • A vaccine gives ‘false sense of indestructibility’, and can lead to decreased personal hygiene and poorer nutrition. 

     

  • A seasonal flu shot may contain small amounts of mercury, which has been linked to certain brain and nerve disorders.

     

  • Side effects from the flu vaccination can include soreness and swelling at the site of injection, as well as low-grade fever and achiness.

     

  • Past flu shots (such as 2010) saw an excess of febrile reactions occurring in children under five years. This was a result of the immunisation Fluvax, which is now not available to children.

Ultimately, choosing whether or not to receive the flu shot is the responsibility of each individual, and before embarking on any treatment you should always be guided by the recommendation of your doctor.

Sources: 

Australian Government - Department of Health

BetterHealth.vic.gov.au

Government of South Australia - SA Health

ABC Health & Wellbeing

The History of Vaccines 

NSW Government - Health

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