by Laurie Sullivan
Did you get vaccinated against flu this year?
No? It’s not too late, especially for people in higher risk categories for more severe flu, who qualify for free vaccination.
Australia’s flu season has another month to run and often there’s a surge of cases during September, according to the Influenza Specialist Group (ISG) Chairman, Dr Alan Hampson.
But, the flu expert said there’s another reason to think about rolling up your sleeve for a late-season flu shot: You’re planning to travel overseas in the next 6 months.
Here are 3 reasons why pre-travel flu vaccination is a smart move:
FLU IS HARD TO AVOID: Influenza is the most common vaccine-preventable, travel-related disease. It can be present in the air you breathe or on hard surfaces you touch in airport terminals, in aircraft cabins, on public transport, and any crowded place you visit.
YOU’RE PROTECTED – AT HOME AND AWAY: Wherever you are, the flu vaccine is effective for up to 12 months, including the upcoming northern flu season. (The current southern hemisphere vaccine is actually the same as the one about to be released throughout the northern hemisphere). In the tropics of both hemispheres, flu viruses circulate year-round, so vaccination will protect people visiting tropical and sub-tropical regions of the Pacific, Asia, Latin America, or Africa at any time of year.
WHEN IT’S GONE, IT’S GONE: When our flu season ends, all surplus vaccine stock is returned to the manufacturers (even though the vaccine has a 12-month expiry). Stocks for the following southern flu season are not available again here until March.
TRAVELLERS ENCOUNTER GLOBETROTTING STRAINS
Dr Hampson said there had been more than 32,000 lab-confirmed cases of flu in Australia this year – more than for all of last year – based on the latest national figures. Around 40% of infections involved young adults, particularly women.
However, these are just the more severe cases seen by hospitals and GPs: Many more of the milder cases go unreported in national statistics.
He believes a flu shot is a must for Australian travellers whatever their overseas destination, particularly given our ongoing love affair with Asian and Pacific countries.
“There are two peaks for flu in the Asia-Pacific’s tropical destinations, but the virus actually circulates right throughout the year,” Dr Hampson told the Travelvax Report.
“In addition, you’ve got people coming from all parts of the world – including countries where flu outbreaks are occurring. They all mingle in airport transit lounges and baggage areas, as well as on planes, which ultimately makes flu very hard to escape.
“Travelling is no fun when you’re feeling crook and you may even be prevented from doing so, especially if your illness is obvious and there is a chance you might infect other passengers.
“The flu vaccine is less than perfect, but it’s worthwhile if it keeps you from getting very sick. A hospital in a developing country could be a bad place to find yourself.”
KIDS MORE SUSCEPTIBLE – AND INFECTIOUS
The more you travel, the higher your risk of getting flu. That’s especially true for little travellers.
During outbreaks, a higher percentage of children get sick than adults. (Medical science is not sure why – probably because adults have some residual immunity from previous bouts of flu and/or from having been vaccinated in the past.)
Children younger than six months (who are too young to be vaccinated) are susceptible to the flu and tend to have severe cases. Once infected, children harbour the virus for longer than adults, making kids a major source of infection.
It's impossible to keep your hands germ-free, but washing them frequently can help limit the transfer of flu, as well as other viruses and bacteria – including those that cause travellers’ diarrhoea.
When travelling, the alternative to soap is an alcohol-based hand sanitiser.
Some upmarket brands of hand sanitisers include natural products and essential oils that moisturise and condition the skin.
Check that the product contains the 60% alcohol content necessary to kill germs effectively.
FLU – FACT AND FICTION
There are many myths and misconceptions about the flu vaccine. Let’s clear up the most common:
MYTH: You can get flu from the vaccine.
FACT: Actually, you can’t. The viruses in the vaccine are inactivated (killed) and incapable of causing influenza. If you get flu shortly after having the vaccine, it is likely you were exposed just prior to having it, or in the 14 days it takes to develop immunity. On the other hand, it may not be flu!
MYTH: Influenza is not all that serious.
FACT: For the lucky ones, it isn’t. But, at worst, flu can be potentially life threatening at any age, especially among high-risk groups mentioned earlier. Each year flu kills 2500 Australians – about the same number as die on the nation’s roads – while around 300,000 see their GP, and 18,000 need hospital treatment.
MYTH: The influenza vaccine is not that effective.
FACT: It is usually rated around 70% at preventing infection in healthy persons under 65, although this can vary from season to season, and depending on your health. While protection may be lower in older adults, studies have convincingly shown that vaccination greatly reduces the number of cases of pneumonia and hospitalisations, and of deaths due to respiratory illness.
MYTH: Healthy travellers don’t need the flu vaccine.
FACT: Anyone can get the flu: being fit and healthy does not protect you. One reason why flu is a global health issue is that the virus’ strains are constantly mutating and being introduced into new areas – largely by air travel. A new vaccine formula is needed each season to keep up with changes in the circulating strains.
MYTH: Older people are protected by built-up immunity to flu.
FACT: While people over 65 may be less likely to suffer infection than the young – especially children – they are actually at higher risk of dying or having serious complications from flu. So is someone (of any age) with a chronic condition, diabetes, kidney dysfunction, or an immune deficiency. Even if you don’t fall into a high risk group, knowing you won’t infect someone who does is a good reason to be vaccinated.
MYTH: You are likely to have a reaction to the vaccine.
FACT: Up to 10% of people immunised against flu develop some swelling, redness or discomfort at the injection site. It usually settles in a day or two. Less than 1% develop a mild fever, some with muscular or joint aches, and feeling unwell for a day or two. Severe reactions to flu vaccine are rare – literally, one in a million. However, it is possible to have an allergic response to the vaccine, especially if you have a severe egg allergy, when vaccination must be undertaken with care.