It's official - it's winter. The first decided nip in the morning air was a clue; the extra hour's lie-in last weekend was the short-lived bonus to make up for the nights closing in; but yesterday's launch of the NHS "Stay Well This Winter" campaign by Public Health England and NHS England means I really can't ignore it. And one of its major planks is a move to get more of us protected against flu.
We actually started our flu vaccination campaign weeks ago, and the initial flood of patients has now slowed to a steady trickle. But we're determined to keep going - giving the vaccine reduces the risk of serious complications like pneumonia, hospital admission and death. Some groups are particularly vulnerable to major complications, and all these are eligible for free immunisation on the NHS. These groups include all over 65s and people with chronic lung conditions like severe asthma, COPD or cystic fibrosis; heart conditions like angina, heart failure and history of heart attack; type 1 or type 2 diabetes; kidney disease; and conditions affecting the immune system. Pregnant women should also be immunised, because they too are more likely to suffer serious complications. So should carers of elderly or disabled people.
Every year, we succeed in immunising about three quarters of over 65s; and every year I bust the same myths in my attempts to persuade vulnerable people to get protected. Among the most common are:
- The flu vaccine gave me flu last time. No it didn't - it can't! The flu injection doesn't contain any live virus, so it can't possibly multiply in your body, which is what the virus has to do in order to give you flu. More likely, you were coming down with a cold anyway, developed symptoms shortly afterwards and blamed the vaccine. While the children's vaccine is a live attenuated vaccine, the viruses are treated to weaken them and they can't multiply
- I had the vaccine last year so I don't need it again. There are hundreds of different versions of the virus, and it's very effective at changing every year so it can still find lots of non-immune people to infect. That means the vaccine is re-designed every year to protect you against this year's most likely common strains
- The vaccine didn't work last year because I still got flu three times. The vaccine only protects against influenza, not the common cold - and the symptoms are very different. If I had a pound for every patient who told me they had 'a touch of flu' I'd be a very rich woman! If you had the sniffles and a tickly cough, it was a cold - if you were confined to bed with high fever, racking bouts of cough and aching in muscles you never knew you had, chances are that it's flu
- It doesn't matter if I get flu - I can take antibiotics. Antibiotics only work for bacterial infection, and won't do a thing against the flu virus. I used to try to explain to patients how useless antibiotics were against viruses by telling them I might just as well give them powdered elephant droppings, until one patient asked me if they worked as well…
If you don't believe me - or even if you do and you want a good laugh - take a look at this hilarious video from Public Health England.
One of the big changes to the flu vaccination campaign this year is its extension, for the first time, to healthy kids in years 1 and 2 of primary school, as well as all children aged two, three and four. These children will all be offered immunisation using a single dose of a nasal spray, rather than an injection.
Flu can be a thoroughly unpleasant illness for children, even though most of them recover with no ill effects within a week or two - but there's another reason for protecting all kids. They're what's known as 'super-spreaders' - they pass the virus around more quickly than any other group. By getting enough children protected, evidence from pilot studies immunising everyone in these age groups shows dramatically lower rates of flu for the whole population. So do Granny a favour and get your kids immunised.
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