Will you be taking the flu vaccine this year?

THE novel coronavirus pandemic has made a vaccinologist out of most of us. By now, we pretty much know what a vaccine is, that no vaccine is 100 per cent perfect, and that being vaccinated isn’t licence to throw oneself in harm’s way.

With vaccines against COVID-19 we have also come to recognise and accept the notion that even if a vaccine doesn’t entirely prevent you from getting the virus, it is very effective at preventing hospitalisation, the need for a ventilator, and death. This is an important shift in people’s appreciation of vaccines, even health-care workers.

We have become used to the idea of receiving a vaccine as children, and being protected for life against diseases like measles, tetanus (or “lock jaw”), and whooping cough. For some vaccines, we may get a booster dose to remind our bodies of how to fight these germs. However, we have had a real challenge in accepting vaccines that do not quite fit this description.

Why do we need a flu vaccine every year?

The flu vaccine is sometimes seen as unnecessary or ineffective because of a misunderstanding about how some vaccines work.

Firstly, the flu vaccine is not one of those that provides lifelong protection. This is because there are many types of flu strains and these strains change over time. As such, flu vaccines made against a particular strain may not be effective against another strain of flu. Therefore, new flu vaccines are made each year based on monitoring by the World Health Organization (WHO) of the most commonly circulating flu strains.

Another common notion about the flu vaccine is that it does not work. By this, individuals mean that if it is not 100 per cent effective in preventing you from catching the flu, then it is not effective at all.

On average, a flu vaccine may prevent one out of every two people vaccinated from catching the flu. It may seem like an ineffective vaccine, but that 50 per cent translates into many individuals prevented from being hospitalised or dying, because they typically get a milder flu after vaccination compared to someone who is not vaccinated.

For someone who catches the flu even after getting the flu vaccine, the chance of being admitted to hospital is reduced by 50 per cent, and the risk of intensive care admission is cut by more than 80 per cent compared to someone who is not vaccinated.

Flu and COVID-19 — double trouble

As many of us have come to appreciate, COVID-19 seems to be here for the long haul, throwing us new tricks just when we had begun to think it was over. Although the flu vaccine does not have any known cross-protection against COVID-19, vaccination against the flu will prevent hospitalisations from the flu and decrease the burden on our health systems. Our elderly and people with weakened immune systems due to chronic illnesses are usually at higher risk for either the flu or COVID-19, and vaccination is an important tool in giving them direct protection. In getting vaccinated ourselves, we reduce the chance of passing on the virus to our loved ones and contacts.

Good hygiene practices

Data from the US, Chile, Australia, and South Africa have shown that practices and measures put in place to fight COVID-19 have drastically reduced flu infections during 2019/2020. For example, just about one in 50 samples submitted for flu testing in the US was positive for flu, compared to its usual 10 times higher positivity rate of over 20 per cent. Handwashing, physical distancing, staying home if unwell, covering coughs or sneezes, wearing a mask, and avoiding gatherings have been long recommended effective ways of reducing the spread of flu, and this has been demonstrated both for the flu and the more deadly COVID-19.

So, has COVID-19 made you think differently about the flu vaccine?

Dr Yohann White is medical director at Para Caribe Consulting. Visit their website at ParaCaribe.com or on social media @ParaCaribeJA. Also, e-mail Dr White at yohann.white@caribewellness.com

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