I know what flu can do and why we must vaccinate at the right time

I know what flu can do and why we must vaccinate at the right time

08-Apr-2018

Last September, my grandfather found himself in the intensive care unit of Bankstown Hospital. He wouldn’t return home for another two months. This champion lawn bowler and diehard Wests Tigers fan ended up on a mechanical ventilator with multiple organ failure, all because of an infection with a strain of influenza virus.

One of the best ways we can protect susceptible community members like my grandfather from influenza is to avoid infection in the first place. This not only keeps you healthy, but it also prevents further spread of the virus to others.

We have the option of a vaccine to help us out but it’s not perfect. One problem is that the influenza virus is the queen of reinvention. It constantly changes and evolves, allowing it to fool our immune system and slip past our defences.

Partly due to the virus’ promiscuous nature, and partly due to the nature of the vaccine itself, the influenza vaccine doesn’t provide long-lasting immunity. While some vaccines – such as the measles vaccine – impart long-lived immunity on their recipients, the influenza vaccine has been shown to wane in effectiveness over the course of a single season.

The height of the influenza season in Australia generally falls around July or August. We know that the vaccine takes about two weeks to begin to work, and that effectiveness appears to drop by about 6 to 11 per cent per month. That’s why the timing of your vaccination is so important.

If you vaccinate too early, your risk of becoming infected increases towards the end of the season. Making it worse, influenza isn’t the only respiratory infection that circulates during winter. After a season of dealing with colds and other respiratory viruses, your lungs aren’t at 100 per cent, and serious complications can more easily develop from a bout with influenza.

All these reasons are why I would be hesitant to get my shot as early as some pharmacists are advertising. I would also keep in mind that the government provides free vaccination to at-risk groups, including those aged over 65 and pregnant women.

Of course, your best option is to have a chat to your GP. They’re more familiar with your medical history than a pharmacist would be, and if you do fall into an at-risk group, they can administer the vaccine free of charge.

While a lot of people talk about workplace productivity and economic costs, we should consider that, for our most vulnerable citizens, even a benign strain of influenza virus can have a very real impact.

Every year, intensive care and respiratory health units fill with people such as my grandfather. He was one of those who recovered and returned home but, in NSW alone, at least 650 flu-related deaths and more than 230,000 reported cases of flu occurred during the 2017 season.

Not all of these cases were elderly individuals. Sixty-five children were admitted to hospital in NSW with severe complications from influenza last year.

We can all help to reduce these numbers this year by getting vaccinated, and getting vaccinated properly.

Caitlin Abbott is a PhD student in virology at the University of Sydney.

Source: The Age

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