Flu free this winter

Last year’s flu outbreak – resulting in 250,000 lab-confirmed cases, and 650 deaths – was the worst on record. Forty-two per cent of the cases were in NSW.

Flu viruses are constantly changing their outerproteins, and this can make it difficult for the body’s immune system to detect and destroy amoving target. It’s thought that the particular strain (H3N2) that was most problematic in 2017 underwent changes during the season, making it more deadly.

Australian health experts have been exploring enhanced vaccines for better protection for the upcoming 2018 season.

The best way to protect yourself and your family from flu is to have a flu vaccination.

How does the vaccine work?

Influenza vaccines contain inactivated ‘dead’ particles of the virus, which alert the body to the threat of the virus and enable it to mount an effective defence if and when the real disease arrives. The injection is given into the muscle, usually in the upper arm. About two weeks after vaccination, antibodies develop to protect against influenza virus infection.

Who should have a flu vaccine?

Everyone six months of age and older should get a flu vaccine as soon as the current season’s vaccines are available. People at high risk of serious complication from flu, including young children under five years, pregnant women, people with chronic health conditions such as asthma, diabetes or heart/ lung disease, or those with lowered immune systems, such as those living with HIV, in particular, should have vaccinations. People over the age of 65 and healthcare workers are also at higher risk than the average population.

When is the best time to vaccinate?

The best time to vaccinate in Australia is from mid-April until May, before the flu season sets in and the virus spreads; although it’s not too late to benefit from vaccination later in the season.

In addition to an annual vaccination, other habits are key in keeping the virus under control:

  • Washing your hands with warm water and soap thoroughly and often will help protect you from viruses and bacteria. If you’re not near a bathroom, use an alcohol-based waterless cleanser.
  • Sneeze or cough into your elbow. Infected droplets can travel a distance of about 1.8m.
  • Stay home if you’re ill. Avoid close contact with people who are sick, and if you get sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick too.

NSW Health has this year made the flu vaccine mandatory for staff working in intensive care units, cancer, transplant, neonatal and birthing wards in the state’s public health facilities, to protect our most vulnerable from the flu.

See their website for more information on staying flu-free this winter.

Professor Robert Booy, head of the clinical research team at the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (NCIRS), Kids Research, at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead