After revelations last week that influenza diagnoses have doubled in the ACT, Canberra residents are being warned about how serious this season’s outbreak is and that vaccinations and preventative measures really matter, especially for the most vulnerable.
ACT Health says that between January 1 and May 10, there were 310 confirmed influenza cases in the ACT, while during the same four-month period last year there were just 128. These four monthly figures are the highest in five years, and while ACT Health doesn’t directly confirm deaths related to the disease, acting Chief Health Officer Kerryn Coleman has told local media that the number is less than five.
Nationally, there have been more than 55,000 notifications of influenza this year and 115 reported deaths, mostly among young children, people who are immune-compromised and the elderly. Vaccine shortages are also being reported, and the Federal government has ordered 400,000 more vaccines to meet demand in the private market.
Health authorities have been urging Canberrans to update their flu vaccinations and the advice from ACT Health is that all parents who have children aged from six months of age to under five years should book their child with their usual immunisation provider in to get a free flu shot now. Some Canberra pharmacies are also supplying government funded vaccines to people who are over 65.
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But if you’ve been sick this year, have you actually had the flu? And will a vaccination keep you safe in the same way that it works for measles, mumps and rubella? The answer to that one is more debatable, but let’s look first at what the flu actually is.
While we often refer casually to having the flu, influenza is a highly infectious and very dangerous viral disease in its most virulent form. The most common symptoms of the flu are: the sudden appearance of a high fever (38 °C or more); a dry cough; body aches (especially in the head, lower back and legs); feeling extremely weak and tired (and not wanting to get out of bed). Other symptoms may include chills; aching behind the eyes; loss of appetite; sore throat and a runny or stuffy nose.
The ANU’s Professor Peter Collignon says that while flu vaccine is a very good idea for the most vulnerable members of the population, the flu vaccines are often only around 50 per cent effective. That’s because of the constantly mutating influenza virus, that appears in a different guise every year or less. The effectiveness of the vaccine will depend on how well matched it is to the predominant strain of the virus circulating each year.
That means that unlike vaccines for once common childhood diseases like polio, there is no dramatic drop in the disease’s prevalence as a result of influenza vaccination programs. Professor Collignon argues that makes flu prevention measures significant.
Most winter virus infections are transmitted via direct contact with hands, or with particle infection from coughs and sneezes. Professor Collignon says that hand washing with soap and water or ideally alcohol hand rubs can do a great deal to prevent infection, both from the influenza virus but also many other common diseases.
Not going to work when you are sick also limits the spread of the disease, and although the Asian practice of wearing face masks if you are unwell is a little startling for many Australians, there’s good evidence to suggest that it can also help halt the spread of the flu and similar diseases.
Have you had the flu this year? Has vaccination kept you safe?