Treatments & Procedures

Why it’s so important to get the flu shot this year

Medical practitioners recommend getting the flu shot every year, but experts say the seasonal flu vaccine is even more important in 2022. Here’s why.

Mention the word “vaccination” today, and most people think about the COVID-19 jabs. For a while there, the annually recommended seasonal flu shot dropped out of the spotlight.

Perhaps it was fatigue – who wants to hear about needing yet another poke in the arm? Or perhaps it was the fact that we were at home for a large part of 2020 and 2021 – who needed an influenza (flu) shot when, during the last 2 flu seasons, we were practising social distancing, wearing masks, locked down, and prevented from going to work or school?

Fluctuating flu cases

When your contact with the outside world is limited, your chances of catching any highly contagious disease – flu included – are reduced. And over the last 2 years, recorded cases of the flu across Australia (and the rest of the world) dropped significantly.

In 2019, before COVID-19, the number of flu cases had reached some of their highest recorded levels, with 313,033 lab-confirmed influenza cases across Australia – 2.7 times higher than the 5-year average – according to the Australian Government Department of Health.

But by 2021 there were 748 cases of the flu with just 2 deaths. Taking steps to avoid infection from COVID-19 has helped us avoid the impact of a whole variety of other respiratory diseases.

But now that the world is opening up – domestic and international travel borders are reopening, kids are back at school, many offices are welcoming workers back – medical practitioners are concerned that our immune-compromised society will not deal well with the likely resurgence of the flu.

“We should be taking extra care this year to ensure we avoid yet another round of severe, and highly contagious, illness spreading through the community,” says Janaki Amin, an infectious diseases epidemiologist professor in the Faculty of Medicine, Health and Human Sciences at Macquarie University. “Because we’ve had a few seasons without the natural boost to our immunity that seasonal flu provides, we may now be more susceptible to the virus.”

Key facts about seasonal flu shots

Influenza, aka the flu, is a highly contagious virus that can affect the entire body; think muscle aches, fever, a sore throat. It’s easily spread and is contagious even before symptoms appear.

Vaccines against the flu – and in general – work through an “expose-response” mechanism, says Prof Amin. “Vaccinations train cells in our body’s immune system to recognise and respond to an infection. We train the immune system by exposing – vaccinating – it to molecules (antigens) from a virus or bacteria.”

The antigens won’t make the person receiving the vaccine sick, but they will trick the body into believing they have already had the disease and create antibodies to protect against future infection.

The goal of getting everyone immunised against the flu is to achieve a critical mass, says Prof Amin. It’s that term “herd immunity” you’ve likely heard on the news more than once over the last 2 years.

“What this means is that when an infected person comes into contact with an immunised person, the chain of infection is broken. This reduces the pool of people who will be infected and go on to transmit the virus further. The greater the herd immunity, the more at-risk people (the non-immune or immuno-compromised) will be protected.”

When vaccination rates fall, community outbreaks increase.

And it’s not just a one-time thing. The influenza virus changes annually, in part in an attempt to avoid its herd immunity nemesis. Public health officials change the annual flu vaccination make-up to anticipate these changes, so a robust annual vaccination campaign is required each year – yes, even in COVID-19 years.

An immune-compromised community

With less travel in recent years and most people adhering to COVID-19 hygiene and safety advice, there hasn’t been as much flu cycling through the population.

“In fact,” Prof Amin says, “we had record-low hospitalisations and influenza-related deaths. We’ve seen a decrease in most other infectious diseases as well. But going forward, as the world opens up, we have no residual immunity from previous years.” And this could have serious public health implications.

We’ve already seen the impact of this state over the recent Northern Hemisphere winter, with flu rates spiking once again. “We’re not sure when pre-COVID levels of the flu will return. And we’re not sure how its return will impact the community – especially young children who have never been exposed to influenza before,” says Prof Amin.

The economic impact of illness

One thing that’s clear is the enormous toll that illness in general has on the economy. It’s estimated that being absent from work due to illness and going to work while unwell costs the Australian economy $35 billion in lost productivity and wages.

Being vaccinated can help to prevent the virus from impacting both our collective health and our economy.

When should I get the flu shot?

Yearly flu vaccination is recommended for people aged 6 months and over. “Yes, young children can get it,” says Prof Amin, and NSW Health notes that it’s also safe for pregnant women and their babies.

“Late April onwards is the best time of year to get the seasonal vaccination, so you’re well fired up in time for winter,” says Prof Amin, noting that a number of at-risk groups, including adults aged 65 or older, are eligible for free annual influenza vaccinations under the National Immunisation Program.

Other groups eligible for free flu vaccines are:

  • children from 6 months to 5 years
  • pregnant women
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 6 months and over
  • people aged 6 months and over with medical conditions which increase the risk of complications.

Remember that flu vaccination may not be suitable for everyone – consult your GP or pharmacist regarding whether it is right for you before booking an appointment.

I’ve had the COVID-19 vaccine, do I need the flu shot as well?

“It’s really important to know that the COVID-19 vaccination does not yet protect you against the flu,” says Prof Amin. “Each vaccine is targeted – so the influenza vaccine is specific to the flu.” You can, however, get a COVID-19 vaccination after, or even at the same time, as a flu shot.

There’s a coronavirus-flu joint vaccine underway, but medical practitioners don’t know when it will be released, or how it will work. “The timing of the flu vaccine, for example, could be out of sync with that of the COVID-19 one,” says Prof Amin.

How to minimise your risk of getting the flu

Aside from staying up to date with vaccinations, you can practise other healthy habits (that we’ve all become very familiar with) to protect yourself against the flu this year:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Clean your hands (and your home) regularly.
  • Stay at home if you’re feeling unwell.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing.
  • Get plenty of sleep, stay physically active, eat well.
  • Avoid touching your mouth and nose to stop the spread of germs.

How to tell whether you have the flu or just a cold

The common cold is also a contagious respiratory disease, but it’s caused by any of a number of distinct viruses, and symptoms are generally much less severe. People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose than people who have the flu, and colds generally don’t result in serious health problems, like pneumonia, bacterial infections or hospitalisations.

Common symptoms of the flu include:

  • a sudden high fever (38°C or more)
  • body aches (especially in head, legs and lower back)
  • dry cough
  • feeling extremely weak or tired.

Other symptoms may be:

  • chills
  • aching behind the eyes
  • loss of appetite
  • sore throat
  • runny or stuffy nose.

Words by Natasha Dragun
First published April 2022

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