Have your flu jab early this year

The annual flu vaccine is crucial as the virus mutates. The jab protects vulnerable groups, but doesn't cover common colds.

There are different forms of flu caused by various virus strains – and each year the influenza virus mutates.

A new vaccine is developed and needed every year for us to remain protected. Worldwide, between three and four million people fall seriously ill with influenza each year, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths.

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The World Health Organisation (WHO) and the department of health’s National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) recognise vaccination as the most effective way to prevent flu.

Most at risk are those with a chronic condition, the elderly, pregnant women and small children.

If you are living with someone vulnerable, you should consider vaccination, as this will prevent you from spreading the flu and, so, protects your loved ones.

This is also why every year Netcare encourages its health care personnel to receive the influenza vaccination.

Every September, the WHO’s technical consultants advise which strains of the influenza virus should be included in the next year’s flu vaccine for the southern hemisphere to ensure the protection provided is up to date.

The influenza vaccine does not cover all the common colds that one is exposed to during winter.

Though the symptoms are similar, these are milder and shorter in duration. Symptoms of flu commonly include body aches, fever, nasal congestion, tiredness and coughing, and stop you from continuing with your normal daily activities.

Children tend to have the highest rates of seasonal flu infection, which can lead to wider transmission in communities.

Although most people start to feel better after a few days of rest, influenza can cause severe prolonged illness and complications.

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It is, therefore, important to seek medical advice if you are not getting better, start to feel worse or experience chest pains or shortness of breath.

To beat seasonal flu, it is worthwhile having your annual influenza vaccine early, as it takes approximately two weeks for your body to develop full protection.

Although the peak flu season usually coincides with the colder weather in winter, it is unpredictable when a flu outbreak will occur.

It is not uncommon for influenza vaccine to give mild side effects, like redness, mild swelling and pain over the injection site, or a mild fever, mild rash, headache, or body aches. These begin soon after vaccination and are usually mild and short-lived.

As with other medications, there is always a small chance of a severe allergic reaction. Make sure you tell your doctor about your recent medical history before you vaccinate, or if you are feeling unwell, as you may be advised to postpone taking the jab.

Those who should consider vaccination include:

• Anyone with a chronic medical illness or weakened immune system;

• Anyone older than 65;

• Those who have been diagnosed with cancer;

• Women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy; and

• Infants and young children.

Other tips:

• Wash your hands thoroughly and regularly;

• Avoid contact with people who are ill;

• Stay at home when you are unwell; and

• Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue or the crook of your arm when you sneeze or cough.

• Zeijlemaker is a family physician and medical director of Netcare’s primary care division.