Many people in the at risk groups for flu put themselves in danger of contracting a serious illness or even death by failing to get vaccinated, the HSE West’s director of public health warned this week.
Dr Diarmuid O’Donovan said the flu vaccine is the best defence against the condition - one of the most common acute respiratory illnesses in the world which can affect between 10 and 15 per cent of the population in a year.
The vaccine reduces infection and associated illnesses and hospitalisation, he stated. “Flu is very infectious and can cause potentially serious illnesses especially for older people, those who have a chronic illness, those with weakened immune systems and pregnant women. Seasonal flu vaccine can be given at any stage of pregnancy and also protects the baby.”
He stressed that the vaccine cannot give people the flu as it does not contain any live flu virus. He urged those at risk to get vaccinated as soon as possible to ensure they are protected.
“The symptoms of flu usually develop over a matter of a few hours and include a high temperature, sore muscles, dry cough, headache and sore throat. Flu is different from the common cold, which tends to come on more gradually and usually includes a runny nose and a normal temperature.”
Dr O’Donovan explained that the condition is spread by coughing and sneezing. “So people should cover their nose and mouth with a tissue, disposing of it as soon as possible and washing their hands with soap and water as soon as possible to help prevent the spread of flu.”
People who are unlucky enough to contract the virus are advised to stay at home, rest, drink plenty of fluids and use over-the-counter remedies. People in high-risk categories should contact their GP if they develop symptoms, outlines the public health specialist.
Flu can be a very serious and sometimes deadly disease with potentially 1,000 flu related deaths during a severe flu season in Ireland. Some 85 per cent of flu-related deaths occur in people aged over 65 years.
Those most at risk are young and elderly people. The young have a greater risk of being infected because they have not developed immunity to the virus. The elderly are vulnerable to the severe complications of infection, such as pneumonia because they often have underlying diseases which reduce their resistance to infection. Their immune systems may also be less effective.
Other high-risk groups include people whose respiratory, cardiac or immune systems make them more susceptible to flu and more likely to suffer severe illness. These include diabetics, asthmatics, people with chronic heart and kidney disease, those with lowered immunity due to steroid medication or cancer treatment, and people in long-stay residential accommodation where flu, once introduced, may spread rapidly.
National uptake figures so far indicate that 59.2 per cent of people aged 65 and over who hold a medical card or GP visit card received the flu vaccine during the 2013-2014 flu season. This uptake rate is higher than in the two previous seasons when the rate was under 57 per cent. However it is less than the World Health Organisation’s target of 75 per cent.
It is important for those in the at risk groups to be vaccinated annually as the virus strains in the vaccine have changed since last year. This year’s flu vaccine protects against the three common flu virus strains expected to be circulating based on advice from the WHO. In addition to seasonal flu vaccination, some people in the at-risk groups may also need the pneumococcal vaccine which is available from GPs. This is not required every year, most people only need to get it once.
The HSE’s dedicated immunisation website - www.immunisation.ie - provides information on the annual flu and pneumococcal vaccines together with answers to questions people may have about the virus. Information leaflets are also available from GP surgeries, pharmacies and local HSE health offices