Although the last couple of winters have been relatively mild in relation to flu, that doesn’t mean that this winter will be the same.
The Public Health Agency (PHA) is reminding people ‘at risk’ that it is very important to get the flu vaccine now, as it can take two weeks for it to reach maximum protection – if you wait until flu starts circulating, it may be too late for it to be effective.
Flu can be very serious and every year in Northern Ireland people become seriously ill with it, and unfortunately some people can even die from it.
In America, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which runs a detailed surveillance system for flu monitoring, has recently reported an increase in flu causing serious illness, particularly in older people and the young. They have said that this could indicate that this year, flu will be more severe than recent years.
Dr Richard Smithson, Consultant in Health Protection at the PHA, said: “Northern Ireland has an excellent record of flu vaccination – we regularly achieve the highest uptake in the UK. Whilst our uptake is still good this year, it is slightly lower than in recent years.
“We would therefore encourage those people ‘at risk’ who haven’t been vaccinated, to get it as soon as possible before flu starts circulating widely. Flu levels are starting to increase here so act now.
“It is also important to remember that the flu virus can differ every flu season, which is why you need to get the vaccination every year. So, even if you received the vaccine in spring last year, you still need to get the vaccination for the 2014/15 flu season.
“There have been recent reports that the flu virus may have mutated making the vaccine less effective. However, the evidence to date from the UK is that most of the viruses tested so far have not mutated, and even for those that have the vaccine may still offer some protection and make the illness less serious.”
Receiving the seasonal flu vaccine is still the best way to help protect yourself and others from getting the virus and, although seasonal flu rates are currently low in Northern Ireland, flu can be unpredictable.
Dr Smithson continued: “You can never be sure what flu will do, but many experts think this could be a bad winter flu season and evidence is already emerging in other countries that backs this up, so we would urge the public to play an active role in protecting their own health and get the flu vaccine. It takes a couple of weeks for the vaccine to work, so it is not too late to get it, but you need to get the vaccine in the next couple of weeks to make sure you get the best protection in time.
“Even if you currently feel fit and healthy, if you are in a risk group you are at increased risk of flu and should receive the free vaccine as soon as possible.
“The flu vaccine does not give you the flu. It is offered as the best protection for ‘at risk’ groups because if they get flu, they are more likely to have severe illness and/or develop complications such as pneumonia, which can be life-threatening.”
In addition the vaccine is now offered to preschool children aged two years and over and primary school children – this helps protect them, and because children spread the virus very easily, this also increases protection for any vulnerable people they may come into contact with.
However, even if you receive the flu vaccine, there is still a need to maintain good hygiene. This will help to reduce the risk of picking up or spreading winter viruses such as flu and norovirus. Hand washing with soap and warm water is the most effective way to prevent the spread of infections, as well as covering your nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing and disposing of it quickly and carefully in a bin.
For more information about the flu vaccine for 2014/15, visit www.fluawareni.info or speak to your GP/nurse or member of staff within the school nurse team at your local Health and Social Care Trust.