The flu vaccine should be given sufficiently early to provide protection for the coming winter. Picture: AP
The flu vaccine should be given sufficiently early to provide protection for the coming winter. Picture: AP

Everything you need to know about 2021 flu season

By Viwe Ndongeni-Ntlebi Time of article published Apr 22, 2021

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Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, reducing the spread of respiratory illnesses, like flu, this winter is more important than ever.

In the past year, flu was delayed and not widely spread, thanks in large part to social distancing measures aimed at reducing the spread of Covid-19.

But experts say there could be a downside: Scientists may struggle to predict what flu strains will dominate this flu season – making it challenging to create effective vaccines.

This year, the Institute For Communicable Diseases has already officially detected one case of influenza in the Western Cape, making this time a crucial one to protect against this flu.

Dr Morgan Mkhatshwa, Head of Operations at Bonitas Medical Fund answers all questions on what to expect with this year’s flu season.

When will this year’s flu viruses circulate this season?

South Africa experiences seasonal influenza epidemics every winter. Although the timing of the influenza season varies from year to year, it is usually during the winter months (May to August) but may start as early as April and as late as July.

For the past 13 years, the average duration of the influenza season has been 19 weeks. This could be affected if we go into a third Covid-19 wave and another lockdown, where the spread of all viruses, including flu slowed down.

It should be noted that prevention of severe influenza during pandemics, such as Covid-19, can reduce the burden on the health care system.

When will flu season peak in 2021 and how will it affect people?

It is uncertain as this will be influenced by the possibility of a third wave of Covid-19 and stricter lockdowns. When we are in lockdown, the flu virus, like Covid-19, does not spread as rapidly.

What kind of vaccines are available in South Africa? What flu viruses does this season’s vaccine protection?

For the 2021 influenza season, an inactivated quadrivalent influenza vaccine (QIV), containing an additional lineage of influenza B, will be available in South Africa.

What flu virus strain do we have in 2021?

There are three types of seasonal influenza viruses – namely type A, B and C. In South Africa, seasonal flu is most commonly caused by type A or type B influenza viruses.

Influenza, also known as the flu, is a viral respiratory illness that is most prevalent during autumn and winter months. It is a highly communicable disease which is associated with severe morbidity and mortality.

Locally, severe illness caused by influenza affects more than 45 000 people annually, with almost 50% of them requiring hospitalisation. It is also estimated that 11 800 people lose their lives every year, in South Africa, from flu-related illness. While it can be potentially life-threatening in certain individuals, it is a vaccine-preventable illness.

All procured influenza vaccines in South Africa in 2021 are quadrivalent (designed to protect against four different flu viruses), two influenza A and two influenza B strains.

What should I do to protect myself from the flu this season?

Get vaccinated, flu vaccines have been shown to reduce the risk of influenza illness, hospitalisation and death. Not only will flu vaccination reduce the risk of getting flu but is an important conservation measure for scarce health care resources, which remains a concern with the ongoing the Covid-19 pandemic.

The flu vaccine should be given sufficiently early to provide protection for the coming winter. A protective antibody response takes about two weeks to develop.

As there is limited evidence of the safety and effectiveness of receiving these vaccines simultaneously, Mkhatshwa recommends waiting at least 14 days between having the Covid-19 and flu Vaccinations.

Who is most at risk?

The Department of Health (DoH) together with the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) targeted the following groups for the 2021 campaign:

  • Healthcare workers
  • Individuals aged 65 years and older
  • People with comorbidities like heart disease, diabetes or lung disease
  • Pregnant women
  • People living with HIV and Aids

What if people are still not convinced of the importance of flu vaccines?

Flu viruses spread very quickly from person to person. Even if the flu vaccine is not 100% effective against the current flu strain, it will reduce your chances of getting flu and, if you do get it, it will be a great deal milder.

More importantly, by having the flu vaccine, you will protect others through what is called “herd immunity”. Others may be vulnerable family members, such as babies and the elderly, as well as those who are immune compromised.

While the world focuses on Covid-19, social distancing, wearing a mask, hand washing, and sanitising, can help protect you from both Covid-19 and flu.

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