One question at the forefront of our minds right now is: Should I get the flu vaccine during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Yes, it is.
The flu, or influenza, is a virus affecting primarily the airways and lungs, and can also affect the brain, gut or heart in severe cases. The flu is circulating year round, but there tend to be more cases in colder months around the end of the year into the start of the next. In Jamaica, we also see another peak somewhere in the earlier half of the year. Over the past five years, Jamaica has reported between about 400 to 1,000 hospitalisations due to influenza-like illnesses per year.
The flu can kill. The elderly, pregnant women, and persons with underlying medical conditions like diabetes or ‘sugar’ and high blood pressure, heart disease, or asthma are at greater risk of getting the flu and may have a harder time getting over the flu. These persons may be at higher risk, but remember, any one of us can get the flu.
How good is the flu vaccine?
A vaccine is a part of a germ or weakened form of a germ that is introduced into the body in very small amounts that trains your body to recognise and fight this germ the next time you come in contact with that germ, thereby protecting you from getting the disease or lessening its severity.
The flu vaccine prevents you from getting the flu. The flu vaccine cuts your risk of getting the flu by half, compared to someone who did not get the flu vaccine.
And although it is not a perfect vaccine, even if someone who was vaccinated against the flu does get the flu, vaccination reduces their chances of being admitted to hospital by 50%. In children, flu vaccination has been shown to cut the chance of being admitted to an intensive care unit or ICU by nearly 80%. When pregnant mothers get vaccinated, this also protects newborn babies until they are old enough to get the flu vaccine themselves.
Why do I need the flu vaccine every year?
The flu vaccine usually contains a mixture of flu strains. The strains that go into the vaccine are updated every year based on year-round sampling and analysis of circulating flu strains by the World Health Organisation (WHO) through over 100 testing centres in over 80 countries worldwide. As such, a flu vaccine gives you better protection when it matches the flu strains circulating in the current flu season. All the strains for the 2020-2021 flu season vaccine have been updated from what were used to make the vaccines for last flu season.
What about COVID?
Unfortunately, the vaccine against the flu does NOT protect against COVID. Based on data from the World Health Organisation, COVID is more than 5 times deadlier than the flu. The symptoms are essentially the same, and testing helps to tell them apart.
However, with these two viruses around us at the same time, a flu vaccine protects you from one of them. Additionally, frequent hand washing, covering your cough or sneeze, and staying away from others who are ill can protect us from both the flu and COVID. And yes, it is possible to get both COVID and the flu, or to get a bacterial lung infection or pneumonia on top of either COVID or the flu.
Some persons do get side effects from the flu vaccine. These are usually mild. If you are known to be allergic to the vaccine, certain antibiotics, or to eggs, please inform your healthcare provider. Mild pain and redness at the area you get the vaccine may occur. Some persons may feel a little ‘fussy’ or fatigued. These side effects usually last for one to three days. A few persons may get a mild fever, which usually shows that your body is responding well to the vaccine and your body is learning how to put up a fight against the flu.
So, talk with your doctor about the flu vaccine, as it could protect you and your loved ones against at least one of several bugs out there.