Dr. Yohann White is Director and Workplace Wellness Consultant at Para Caribe Consulting. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @ParaCaribeJa on Social Media.
This 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% perfect, and that being vaccinated isn’t license 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, need for a ventilator, and death. This is an important shift in people’s appreciation of vaccines, even healthcare workers.
We have become used to the idea of receiving a vaccine as a child 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 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, persons mean that if it is not 100% effective in preventing you from catching the flu, then it is not effective at all. However, like we have now come to see with vaccines against COVID-19, a vaccine can still be effective in keeping you out of hospital or from admission to ICU or from dying even if you do happen to catch the flu after being vaccinated. On average, a flu vaccine may prevent 1 out of every 2 persons vaccinated from catching the flu. It may seem like an ineffective vaccine, but that 50% translates into many cases 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 cut by 50%, and the risk of ICU admission is reduced by over 80% compared to someone who is not vaccinated.
Protect your team
A flu vaccine may prevent 1 out of every 2 persons vaccinated from catching the flu
Flu and COVID-19 – double trouble
It is also important to recognise that there is seasonal flu, with minor but important enough changes over time that allows the flu virus to avoid the fight our bodies try to put up against it. And there are more deadly forms of flu, that may actually kill a larger percentage of people they infect, or may spread more quickly across the globe infecting and killing more people than the seasonal flu, and referred to as pandemic flu. 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 start to think it’s 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 persons 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 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 1 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%. Hand washing, physical distancing, staying home if unwell, covering cough or sneeze, 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?