Your friend gets the flu
Lauren* looks like a university student you know.She wears her long hair in a ponytail and carries a backpack to class. But she’s not like everyone else. One wrong move could put her in hospital.
Her eyes survey the lecture theatre carefully. She sees some new friends sitting near the front, but one of them is holding a tissue. She makes her way to the back of the class. No one saw her. The lecture starts. Phew! She’s safe for another day.
Lauren has been fighting an immune condition all her life. A simple cold or flu can make her sick for months or even send or her hospital. She doesn’t want her condition to hold her back, though. So she has decided to go to university anyway.
Thankfully, there are some simple things you can all do to help Lauren, and others at high risk of flu infection.
Who is at risk of flu?
Generally speaking, young adults are not at high risk from flu. However, various medical conditions can affect a person’s immunity and increase their flu risk at any age, even in young adults. These include Lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and Lyme disease, to name just a few. Many of these conditions will not be obvious to a casual observer, so you may not know your new classmate or friend has one of these high risk conditions.
If university or TAFE students catch influenza during examination times or when major assignments are due, it can have a major impact.
People living in confined spaces, such as dormitories can also be at higher risk of contracting influenza. The Centers for Disease Control Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices encourages students and other people living in dormitories to be immunised.
In the broader community, young children and elderly adults are at highest risk of contracting influenza. This is because young children have not yet developed strong immune systems, and elderly adults can experience weakening of their immune systems with age.
Your flu jab could save your friend
You can help protect both yourself and the people around you by getting immunised. People with immune conditions, like Lauren, are not able to be immunised themselves. They count on the people around them to be immunised and provide protection via “herd immunity.”
Herd immunity is the protection that we gain from being surrounded by people who are immune to a disease. If the people around us, or our “herd” has been immunised, they are much less likely to get sick and spread those illnesses to us. For herd immunity to work, however, approximately 95 per cent of the “herd” needs to be vaccinated. This is why it is so important for healthy people to be vaccinated.
Dr Graham Jones, director of higher degree research and senior lecturer in human molecular biology at Western Sydney University, explains that: “Being immunised helps the community. If enough people are immunised, those most at risk – older people, young infants and people with reduced immunity – will be better protected. So being immunised every year is good for you and for the people around you.”
The following image from the National Institutes of Health (USA) explains herd immunity.
When should you get vaccinated?
The best time to get vaccinated is June or July. Dr Jones explains that: “Historically, the peak time for the flu season is during August, but in some years cases of flu can already be on the increase in June. Immunisation primes your immune system to make antibodies that will fight the flu virus.”
Many workplaces provide free flu vaccinations for employees. Otherwise, the cost is usually approximately $20 from your doctor or pharmacist.
Are vaccinations dangerous?
The short answer is “No.” The perception that immunisations could be dangerous began due to an article published in a medical journal called The Lancet in 1998. It has since been revealed that the researchers responsible for this paper falsified their data and the paper has since been retracted.
Dr Jones points out that “large population-based studies have not found a link between vaccines and serious illness.”
Minor symptoms following vaccination such as a sore arm, redness and localised swelling are common and expected. These are indicators that your body is recognising the vaccine and starting to its work to build your immunity. “Serious adverse reactions to a vaccine are rare, at around 3.4 cases per million vaccinations,” said Dr Jones.
Of course, doctors and immunisation nurses are vigilant for even the slightest risk. It is for this reason that they will take a brief medical history before administering a vaccine. It is also why you will be asked to wait 15 minutes after vaccination before leaving the surgery.
Dr Jones advises: “If you have been feeling unwell, or have allergies, or other serious or chronic illnesses, you do need to inform your doctor or nurse prior to being immunised. It is important that you are informed about immunisation, so never hesitate to discuss any questions you may have with your doctor.”
Do flu vaccines work?
Immunisation is unquestionably one of the great successes of public health, significantly reducing infant mortality and keeping people healthier throughout their lives,” notes Dr Jones.
However, there are two important points to remember about flu vaccines: Firstly, the strains (or types) of flu virus circulating change from one flu season to the next. And secondly, your body takes approximately two weeks to develop immunity after you have a flu shot. Each year a new flu vaccine is manufactured to best protect against that year’s particular strains of flu.
“This means it is important to have a flu shot every year, and to have your flu shot early enough to allow your immune system to make antibodies,” says Dr Jones.
The 2017 flu season was the worst in Australia since 2009. More than 700 deaths in Australia were attributed to flu-related illnesses, and many more hospitalizations and days off work.
“While having a flu shot doesn’t mean you won’t be infected by the flu virus, it does mean that you are more likely to have much milder and shorter-lived symptoms.”
How to stop germs from spreading
If you do catch the flu, or if those around you catch it, there are some simple tricks you can use to prevent the germs from spreading. These include: 1) Coughing into a tissue and then throw the tissue away, 2) Coughing into your elbow like Dracula or The Count, 3) Washing your hands regularly and especially after coughing, 4) Not touching your face with your hands, and 5) Staying home if you’re really sick – ask a friend for their notes or watch the lecture online.
It’s also important to keep well in general. A balanced diet with ample iron, zinc and vitamin C will give your body the nutrients it needs to build immunity and fight infection. Getting enough sleep is also important for staying well.
*Editor’s note: None of the photos with this story show Lauren. In fact, we don’t know if any of the people in these photos have the flu or get vaccinated.
Author: Lois MacCullagh