Flu’s here. Ready or not?

By Tonia Buzzolini, National Operations Manager, Travelvax Australia

As a nurse, I’ve worked in the intensive care units of national and international hospitals and seen just how severe influenza can be – especially for young babies and the elderly.
But, this winter it’s not the youngest or oldest Australians who are likely to be at highest risk of being hospitalised with the complication from flu.
Rather, it is young and middle-aged adults aged 18-64, according to Dr Alan Hampson, chairman of the Influenza Specialists Group (ISG), who launched the FluSmart campaign in Victoria last week. Dr Hampson and the ISG’s members are Australia’s leading experts on flu.
Dr Hampson warned that adults aged 18-64 made up 61.6% of the hospital admissions caused by pH1N1 in the USA during the recent 2013-14 northern hemisphere winter.
The ‘p’ stands for pandemic and it is the same swine flu strain that killed an estimated 17,000 worldwide in 2009.

Flu a common travel health risk

As often occurs, the pH1N1 strain is also set to be the southern hemisphere’s dominant strain this year.
Fortunately, it is one of three strains covered by Australia’s seasonal flu vaccine. (Along with the A/California/7/2009 (H1N1)-like virus, this year’s vaccine also covers 2 other strains: an A/Texas/50/2012 (H3N2)-like virus, and a B/Massachusetts/02/2012-like virus.)
So, what does a potentially severe flu season in Australia mean for overseas travel?
Many studies have shown flu is the most common, vaccine-preventable disease among international travellers. They can pick it up (or pass it on) from the moment they arrive at the airport and throughout their trip. 
Long international flights of more than 5 hours pose a higher risk of flu than shorter domestic ones. Having a flu shot will significantly lower a traveller’s risk of infection, even if a fellow passenger is coughing and sneezing nearby throughout the flight.
For unvaccinated travellers, flu could mean illness, disrupted travel plans, and potentially costly medical treatment in a foreign country.

Three reason to get a flu shot

So, here are 3 reasons why every Australian aged 6 months and older – especially those travelling abroad – should be vaccinated against flu.
1 – 2014 could see an above average number of cases.
To date, we’ve already had 2929 lab-confirmed cases nationwide. Even in the summer months of January and February we had a combined total of 2538 cases compared to 1471 in the same period last year. 
2 –Younger children and the elderly are still vulnerable.
Young and middle-aged adults may be more susceptible to severe infection this year, but the very young and very old will continue to be hospitalised with illnesses caused by flu, too. They could be family members or those in your travel group.
3 – It will protect you if you travel overseas outside our flu season.
There’s a period from November to March when the vaccine is not available in Australia. That period coincides with the northern hemisphere flu season. Those planning overseas travel who are vaccinated here this winter will get at least partial protection against the flu strains circulating in transit or at their destination outside our flu season. (The ISG advises people at higher-risk of infection who were vaccinated against flu during the 2014 winter may also benefit from a late-season booster dose before travelling overseas during our summer months.)

Flu is VERY hard to avoid

Influenza is not simply a very bad cold. In fact, it’s caused by a completely different virus and, unlike a cold, often means recovery time in bed.
The flu virus is spread in two ways:
- Most commonly, we breathe in aerosol droplets containing the virus after an infected person has coughed or sneezed into the air. 
- The virus can also be transferred from contaminated surfaces, where it can survive for up to 8 hours.
So, even if you are vaccinated, there are steps you should take to dodge the virus:
Avoid sick people – On aircraft the ‘hot zone’ for flu infection is two seats in any direction. (A 2011 study found those passengers in the zone had a 7.7% higher chance of getting flu.) If someone if coughing or sneezing near you, move seats if you can. 
Some quick ‘housekeeping’ – As mentioned, the flu virus is hardy and can remain viable on virtually any hard surface for more than 8 hours. Often we literally pick it up and infect ourselves by touching our eyes, nose, or mouth. At home, the virus can be found on a telephone or the handle of a supermarket trolley, while in the air it’s on your fold-down tray, arm rests, window ledges, and bathroom surfaces that the virus can lurk. (Once seated, a good practice is to give your seat’s immediate surrounds a wipe with a disposable hygienic towelette.)
Remember hand hygiene – Keeping your hands clean is important at home or away – especially after using the toilet and before eating. Wash them thoroughly all over with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If that’s not possible, carry an alcohol-based hand gel, lotion, or towelette.
It is possible to reduce the risk of getting flu by carrying a mask you can slip on in situations where you can’t escape someone coughing nearby, such as in an aircraft cabin. In fact, a mask is advisable for people at higher risk of severe illness from flu.

Vaccination: It’s the right thing to do

I believe that having the flu vaccine each year is not only the smart thing to do, but also the responsible thing.
One of the people you infect with flu might be at higher risk of severe illness – a pregnant woman, a newborn infant, an elderly person, or someone with a chronic medical condition. For them, flu could be fatal. 
An estimated 1500 – 3500 Aussies die from flu or flu-related illness each year – more than die on our roads nationwide. In Australia, flu also causes an extra 18,000 hospital admissions and an additional 300,000 GP visits, not to mention the many, many millions of dollars in healthcare costs and lost productivity in the workplace.
Whenever the flu virus is about, so are the many flu ‘myths’. One we hear most is that the vaccine can give you the flu.
Influenza vaccine does not contain any live viruses: It cannot cause the illness.
The reason why this myth is so persistent is because people wait until the virus is well established before getting immunised. Then, they either get infected just before they have the shot, or during the fortnight it takes for the vaccine to become effective.
In fact, some people who think they have flu don’t have it at all. Instead they get sick with a cold, or with one of the many influenza-like viruses or bugs that circulate during winter.

Convinced? Act soon!

The flu vaccine doesn’t come with a gilt-edged guarantee that you won’t catch the virus: It’s around 50-70% effective for most people. 
However, the experts agree that the vaccine offers good protection and those vaccinated generally avoid more severe illness. 
(Antiviral medications can be used to treat influenza infections provided that they are taken in the very early stages of the illness. These drugs are also effective against avian influenza and certain long-stay or high-risk travellers may be advised to take a supply of the medication overseas for self-treatment, but only after discussing the potential risk of infection with a doctor – ideally one experienced in travel medicine.)
If you decide to get a flu shot this year, my final piece of advice is: Don’t delay.