Without a doubt an influenza vaccination is the best way for everyone to protect themselves against seasonal influenza, according to virologist and international influenza expert Dr Lance Jennings.
[Interview with Dr Lance Jennings at his workplace. You can see other laboratory staff in the background.]
Title: Dr Lance Jennings, International Influenza Expert, Canterbury Health Laboratories
Dr Jennings: Being fit and healthy doesn’t protect you against influenza. Our best protection currently is to receive the seasonal influenza vaccine.
[Shot of a hospital nurse giving a patient the vaccine.]
Dr Jennings (voice-over): Influenza vaccine cannot give you influenza. What some people do have, at the site of injection, is redness and soreness. And quite a large number of people can have soreness at the site of the injection, which may last for up to 24 hours and then disappear.
[Back to interview.]
Dr Jennings: It’s particular important for older aged people, people over 65 years, to receive it annually, because a consequence of contracting influenza in this age group is developing pneumonia and being admitted to hospital and possibly dying.
[Still image of the influenza virus. The virus is round or jellybean-shaped, and has a sort of fringe around it.]
Dr Jennings (voice-over): Being able to recognise the onset of influenza and its symptoms, and preferably going home and taking yourself away from other people so that you limit the spread of the virus from person-to-person. This of course isn’t always possible because it’s difficult to recognise the onset of symptoms.
[Shot showing a man sneezing, and the droplets from the sneeze getting caught on a piece of clear glass. This zooms in to show an animation of the individual viruses in the dropments. The viruses look a bit like pom-poms. The video zooms in again to show the virus in more detail. It is black in the centre, with a wriggly green ‘fringe’.]
Dr Jennings (voice-over): But also if we develop a cough we can use respiratory hygiene methods of covering coughs and sneezes, and keeping away from other people who haven’t got respiratory symptoms as much as possible.
[Back to interview.]
Dr Jennings: And of course, washing our hands after we’ve blown our noses to limit the virus getting onto our hands and being spread to other people.
[Shot of a health worker in a laboratory, sitting in front of a fume cabinet. The workspace behind glass and has a caution sign on it. She is doing something with a set of samples.]
Dr Jennings (voice-over): The first thing we can do of course is go home, and stay at home until we’re feeling better, to limit the spread of this virus into the school room or to our colleagues. Cover coughs and sneezes. Use tissues to trap these respiratory secretions. And wash your hands afterwards, to limit the spread of the viruses to other people.
[Back to interview.]
Dr Jennings: So the important thing is to be aware of media reports when influenza is circulating in our communities during the winter months, and if you contract symptoms of influenza that you’re concerned about, talk to your general practitioner.
Every year around 400 New Zealanders die from the flu and around 50,000 people visit their GP with an influenza-like illness.
‘Being fit and healthy does not protect you against influenza,’ Dr Jennings says. ‘It is especially important that pregnant women, people aged over 65 and anyone from six months of age with an ongoing medical condition have their free flu shot,’ he says.
To protect against influenza, it is important to be vaccinated every year as the vaccine is only effective for a short period of time. New influenza strains may develop to which people have little or no immunity. This year’s Southern Hemisphere seasonal influenza vaccine provides protection against the A/California (H1N1) virus related to the 2009 pandemic virus; the A/Victoria (H3N2) virus; and the influenza B/Wisconsin virus.
Dr Jennings says the H1N1 virus continues to circulate around the world, causing outbreaks in some countries. It has affected some people so severely that they have been admitted to Intensive Care Units and some have died.
The A/Victoria (H3N2) virus caused generally mild to moderate outbreaks of influenza across New Zealand last year, however the impact on Canterbury was more severe. Dr Jennings says there were a high number of influenza admissions to Christchurch Hospital which meant that on some occasions there were not enough beds for people booked to have operations and elective surgery had to be cancelled. Dr Jennings says he thinks this H3N2 virus might hit the rest of New Zealand hard this year, making it important for people to be vaccinated, so that our health care services including hospitals are not overwhelmed.
The Influenza B virus has also been circulating in the Northern Hemisphere, and in particular China, over the past winter. Dr Jennings predicts that this strain is most likely to affect young people and could be an unwelcome presence in New Zealand classrooms towards the end of this winter.
Asked whether the influenza vaccination can cause influenza and Dr Jennings gives a resounding ‘no’. ‘The influenza vaccine is made of disrupted virus particles and it is not possible for it to give you the flu,’ he says. ‘Some people may have some soreness at the site of the injection and feel like they have a mild fever after being vaccinated but it is not the flu.’
‘The problem with having a flu injection in autumn is that it comes at the same time as a lot of respiratory viruses start circulating in the community. Some people will be developing an illness from one of these viruses when receiving the flu injection, and of course the flu injection gets the blame,’ he says.
Unfortunately the influenza vaccination doesn’t give the same level of protection to older people and children younger than two, as it does to the rest of the community.
Dr Jennings says that anyone who has regular contact with young children and older people can help to protect them from the flu by having an influenza vaccination themselves.
This is especially important for health care professionals in hospitals and rest homes, Well Child health workers and child care workers, as well as family members. ‘By having an influenza vaccination, pregnant women not only gain protection for themselves, but help protect their babies from the flu for the first six months of life.’
Another way that people can help prevent the spread of influenza to others is to go home if they are unwell and stay there until they are better.
Respiratory hygiene which involves covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue and throwing the tissue away; and washing hands before eating or touching your face is also important in preventing the spread of diseases.
If people know they are sick, they should also keep a good distance away from others to help prevent them from becoming ill too, or even better stay at home.
Dr Jennings advises anyone who thinks they have influenza this winter to talk to their GP or a pharmacist as early as possible about whether they need an anti-viral medicine, which can help reduce the impact of the flu.
Before visiting their GP or pharmacist, anyone who thinks they have influenza should telephone first. Alternatively they can call Healthline on 0800 611 116 and get advice from a trained nurse.