Every year there is a debate about flu injections yet up to 11 000 people die from the flu in South Africa annually. Picture: Pexels

Every year there is a debate about flu injections yet up to 11 000 people die from the flu in South Africa annually. And yet the flu vaccination is so readily available and paid for by most medical aid schemes.  

So why is it that more people don’t get vaccinated? Gerhard Van Emmenis, Principal Officer of Bonitas Medical Fund says, ‘There are a number of reasons, including: ‘I don’t get flu’, or erroneously thinking: ‘The vaccine doesn’t work’; ‘it will hurt my arm’ or ‘the vaccine will give me flu’.  However, there are very good clinical reasons why you should.’

What is‘flu’ , how does it affect your body, and why should you consider getting vaccinated this year?

How the flu affects your body

So while the symptoms of flu are high temperatures, body pain, sore throat, tiredness, loss of appetite. They are the same year in and year out, some flu strains may cause the symptoms to last for a longer time and be more severe. The flu can also bring headaches, muscle pain, vomiting and diarrhoea. In people with weaker immune systems, the flu is even more serious.

Primary influenza virus pneumonia occurs when the flu virus causes severe lung damage. You’ll start with the usual symptoms of flu, but the fever persists, your cough worsens and you’ll become extremely short of breath. In severe cases, you may have a bluish tinge and become confused from a lack of oxygen. This form of pneumonia needs hospital care.  

Secondary bacterial pneumonia is more common than viral pneumonia and occurs when bacteria cause a secondary infection in the lungs. Typical symptoms include recurrence of fever, shortness of breath and secretions during coughing four to 14 days after the symptoms have almost disappeared.

The flu can cause otitis media (a middle ear infection) and croup in children. In most cases, the ear infection is caused by the virus itself, so antibiotics are seldom necessary.

In rare cases, inflammation of the muscles (myositis) can occur. It’s more common in children. Painful tender leg muscles are also a common symptom. Also, very rarely, the heart muscle may become inflamed (myocarditis). Symptoms include tiredness, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, a rapid pulse and discomfort in the chest.

Why the flu vaccine is important

The vaccine is necessary every year because the influenza virus – changes each year or is a mutation of an existing one.  The injection helps your immune system fight off the virus by producing antibodies - little immune system soldiers that battle the flu virus.

To protect yourself properly, you and your family should be vaccinated before winter arrives.  

Can it give you flu?

According to the Centre for Disease Control, ‘A flu shot can’t cause flu. Flu vaccines given with a needle are currently made either with flu vaccine viruses that have been ‘inactivated’ and are not infectious, or with no flu vaccine viruses at all. The most common side-effects from the shot are soreness, redness, tenderness or swelling where the shot was given. Serious allergic reactions to flu vaccines are very rare.’

Allergic to eggs?

Most flu vaccines contain egg protein but there are egg free options available. So, if you have an egg allergy or are a vegan, speak to you doctor and ensure you use an alternative vaccination.  

When to get vaccinated?

‘The sooner the better, before the winter flu season hits us,’ says Mogologolo Phasha, Chairman of the Independent Community Pharmacy Association (ICPA). ‘Many people die every year because of complications from flu, with most of the deaths occurring in high risk people,’ explains Phasha. ‘These are pregnant women; children between the ages of six months and five years; people older than 65; those with HIV/AIDS, and chronic disease sufferers.’

We don’t know if the flu will be as severe in South Africa as it has been in other countries, but we can be prepared by having a flu vaccination, regular handwashing and avoiding contact with people who have the flu.