We are approaching that time of year when we need to start thinking about getting our flu vaccine. Although influenza in 2018 was nowhere near as vicious as the previous year, there is always the chance of serious complications and occasionally death.
It is my strong advice that anyone over the age of 50; anyone with a chronic illness; pregnant women and young children should all consider having an influenza vaccine. Those vaccinated are 70% less likely to see a general practitioner with a flulike infection and also 60% less likely to be hospitalised.
Vaccinations are never 100% effective and certainly not effective against all strains of influenza. The standard quadrivalent vaccine is directed against two strains of Influenza A and two strains of Influenza B. Hopefully, this will cover the predicted strains that will infect our community over the winter months.
There are certain myths around influenza vaccination that need to be repudiated every year:
1. Having a flu vaccination protects against all other colds and viruses
2. You can actually get the flu from the flu vaccine
3. It is important to take antibiotics with the onset of influenza
These three statements are certainly myths. You can still catch a cold despite having had the flu vaccine. The vaccine only protects against the strains in the vaccine to which you are exposed and even then, as stated above, is never 100% effective.
You may have a reaction to the flu vaccine where you experience mild flulike symptoms but you cannot contract influenza from the vaccine.
The reality is that antibiotics are useless in treating influenza. The only reason to see your doctor would be to have specific antivirals such as Tamiflu; to obtain a work certificate and also for the doctor to check for serious complications of influenza.
Some good news around influenza has come from Doherty Institute in Melbourne published in the Journal, “Nature Immunology”.
T cells are specific immune cells that fight viruses and tumours. Killer cells are types of T cells active in the immune response to influenza and protect against all types of influenza. Typically Influenza A causes the pandemics that spread through the community like wildfire whereas Influenza B is typically milder but in certain cases may be very severe, especially in young children. A peptide is a small part of a protein and the influenza virus has specific common peptides which activates Killer T cells which markedly reduces the effects of the flu virus and inflammation. The group from the Doherty Institute in Melbourne identified parts of the virus that are universal to all influenza viruses that specifically activate Killer T cells, giving us universal protection against influenza. This vaccine is now patented & will soon be trialled in humans.
I believe we are not far from the day when we will all have a universal flu vaccine possibly once every 10 years, rather similar to the vaccinations we had as children protecting us for many years against what were once lethal infections that used to kill young children. This is yet another example of the vital importance of scientific research and it is exciting to see this type of work occurring in Australia. There is no doubt with the funding received by Australian medical researchers, we are punching well above our weight in this category.
Postscript: As I am not a general practitioner, I checked with my colleagues in this area & my local pharmacy. As yet, they are not expecting the first batches of flu vaccine until sometime in March.