Are vaccinations going to change during the pandemic?
Should young adults worry about flu?
We're used to hearing about flu season each winter - and many people in more vulnerable groups get vaccinated against this seasonal malady. Teenagers and young adults without underlying health conditions are generally considered more robust against this illness. But should they be more concerned about the flu? And does the current pandemic make a difference?
Feature illustrated by Tor Ewen.
Young and resilient?
As a general rule, people in their 'prime' - late teens to late 30s - are more physically resilient when it comes to flu. But that doesn’t mean that this illness can't have a serious impact, even on the seemingly healthy. In addition, recent strains may have led to the flu becoming more of a risk to younger people than it may have been in the past.
"Swine flu (2009) was quite unusual in that it did make younger people more ill, more often. And the H1N1 variant of that virus is now the ancestor of many of the viruses circulating at the moment. So in that respect it is possible for people to get quite unwell with flu," explains Dr Stephen Griffin, virologist at Leeds Institute of Medical Research.
"In addition, all of these things are on a spectrum and measured with percentages - and when you apply even a small percentage to a population, the number of people affected can be quite high."
It's also important to remember that while older children and young adults may be less susceptible to severe flu, very young children may not be as robust. That's one of the reasons why all children from age 2 years to those in the first year of secondary school are being offered the flu vaccine on the NHS this year. This group also appears to be particularly good at spreading the flu virus, which can mean they could infect vulnerable adults.
Flu and coronavirus
One of the major risks this season - even for healthy individuals - is contracting flu and coronavirus at the same time. "Having the two conditions at the same time could tip the balance even in someone healthy," agrees Griffin, who recommends that everyone get a flu vaccination if possible. Recent evidence from Public Health England shows that people who are infected with both flu and coronavirus are more than twice as likely to die as those who have coronavirus alone.
Even if you have the flu on its own, if you - or others you have infected - develop complications this could mean hospitalisation. In times of pandemic, this could add to what will already be a difficult winter for healthcare providers. "If you think about it, each year we hear about A&Es being overcrowded and having to shut down - and a lot of that is to do with respiratory virus infections," he explains. "If you dampen the flu through vaccination it will cut the number of people dying as well as take the pressure off hospitals."
Even if you're lucky enough to be in your prime, and have no underlying health conditions, it's important to be mindful of the flu. Like coronavirus, flu may be passed from those who are relatively fit and healthy to those who are more vulnerable.
If you are unable to get a flu vaccine, it's important to be mindful of symptoms and careful not to spread the illness if you catch it. This may be helped by existing measures brought in to combat coronavirus. "If there's one good thing about the pandemic, it may be that we'll have an easier flu season this year," explains Griffin. "The response to COVID-19 has meant a better public understanding of how to combat the spread of respiratory viruses."
The NHS currently offers the vaccine free to adults aged 65 and over, those who work or act as a carer, those who have certain health conditions or women who are pregnant. Importantly, this year, the vaccine is also being offered to those who are living with someone who is shielding from coronavirus.
Children are also offered the vaccine - in the form of a nasal spray - if they are aged 2 or 3 years on 31 August 2020, if they attend primary school, or if they are in year 7 of secondary school. In addition, those who are deemed high risk for flu will be offered this vaccine.
The flu vaccine is also available to purchase for £14 or less at many chemists for those not in the above groups. And the great news is you don't need a prescription, although this year (to protect against COVID-19 spread) you're likely to need an appointment.
Are you eligible for a free NHS flu vaccination?
You may be entitled to a free NHS flu vaccination from your GP or local pharmacist. Find out if you are eligible today.
Don't dismiss the flu
Because the flu has been around for many years, it's easy to write it off as part and parcel of a normal winter. Very few of us give the illness much consideration unless we are particularly vulnerable. But as flu causes around 10,000 deaths per year in England and Wales perhaps it's something to take a little more seriously.
"People tend to say 'Oh, it's just the flu' but it's important to remember that flu kills many people each year," agrees Griffin. "Flu vaccines tend to work really well - they cover many different strains."
Even if you are relatively low-risk, having a vaccine should help reduce the spread of flu, thus protecting vulnerable groups. It could also reduce pressure on the NHS at what is expected to be a critical time, and - importantly - help you to realise if you have developed symptoms of COVID-19 by taking flu out of the equation.
Being young has many health advantages; but when it comes to the flu, it's important to understand the facts and how best to protect yourself and others.