Flu season brings more than fever

Flu season is about to descend again and with it the misery of aches, fever and sniffles.
Flu, or influenza, also means increased traffic at doctors’ offices and hospital emergency rooms from October to May. 

Last year, it’s estimated five million Canadians came down with the flu. About 4500 hundred people died, most of them elderly, according to Health Canada. Other costs are lost workdays and health care for a total of a billion dollars.

One province, Ontario, has decided to go to war on the bug by offering free flu shots. In other provinces, shots are readily available for a  $15 to $20 fee. And now is the time to get your shot, especially if you’re over 65.

Concerned about offering up your arm?  The Ontario Government and Health Canada’s FluWatch offer this information.

Q) What is influenza?
Influenza is an acute respiratory illness caused by a virus. People who get influenza have a cough, fever, headache, muscle ache, stuffy nose and sore throat. Influenza usually lasts for five to 10 days.

Influenza immunization will prevent people acquiring the disease and transmitting it to family and friends. Infenza can cause pneumonia and death, particularly in the elderly and those with heart or lung problems or other medical conditions.

Influenza spreads easily through coughing and sneezing. It is also spread by direct contact with contaminated surfaces or objects like unwashed hands, contaminated toys and eating utensils.

Q) Why should healthy people get vaccinated?
Influenza is much worse than a cold. Even healthy young people can get very ill. You might bring the influenza virus home to a vulnerable baby, older relative, or someone with another medical condition who could get severe complications from influenza.

You might have to cancel well-deserved vacations or miss special social functions because you or your family are sick.

Q) Who should get the flu vaccine?
Infants under six months of age and persons with medical contraindications to the vaccine should NOT be immunized. All others can benefit from the vaccine.

In particular, people at high risk for complications from influenza disease and health workers or family members who might transmit the flu to people at risk should get the vaccine.

Q) Who is at increased risk of developing complications of influenza?
· People 65 years of age or older.
· Adults and children with chronic heart or lung disease.
· Adults and children with chronic conditions such as diabetes and other metabolic diseases, cancer, immunodeficiency (including HIV infection), immunosuppression, renal disease, anemia and hemoglobinopathy.
· Children and adolescents (aged 6 months to 18 years) treated for long periods with acetylsalicylic acid.
· All residents of homes for the aged, nursing homes, chronic care facilities/units, and retirement homes.

Q) How well does influenza vaccine protect against the flu?
Vaccine effectiveness varies from one person to another. Protection from the vaccine develops about two weeks after the shot, and may last up to a year.
· The vaccine is 70 per cent to 90 per cent effective in preventing influenza illness in healthy adults.
· In children, it is about 80 per cent to 90 per cent effective in preventing influenza infection, and about 62 per cent to 73 per cent effective in preventing illness with fever.
· In elderly people, the vaccine can prevent pneumonia and hospitalization in about six out of 10 people, and prevent death in about eight out of 10 people.
The viruses that cause influenza change often. Because of this, influenza vaccine is updated each year. People who receive the vaccine can still get influenza, but if they do, it is usually milder than it would have been without the shot.

Q) Do I need a flu shot every year?
There are many different strains of influenza each with slightly different characteristics. The circulating strains of influenza change yearly. Each year, a new vaccine is produced which provides protection against the three most common strains predicted to circulate in the coming season.

Q) Who should NOT get influenza vaccine?
· Infants under six months of age (the current vaccine does not work well in this age group).
· Anyone with a serious allergy (anaphylaxis) to eggs or egg products. A serious allergic reaction usually means that the person develops hives, swelling of the mouth and throat or trouble breathing after eating eggs or egg products.
· Anyone who has a severe allergy to any component of the vaccine. Two influenza vaccines will be available this season: Vaxigrip and Fluzone. Both vaccines contain Thimerosal as a preservative. In addition, Vaxigrip may contain traces of the antibiotic neomycin, and Fluzone contains gelatin.
· Anyone who had a serious allergic reaction to a previous dose of the influenza vaccine.
· Persons with a history of Guillain-Barré Syndrome should consult their physician before getting the vaccine
· Persons who are acutely ill with a fever at the time that the shot is being given should usually wait until they recover before getting influenza vaccine.

Q) When should influenza vaccine be given?
The best time to get influenza vaccine is before the flu season starts. The elderly and those who are in the high priority groups should get their flu shot in October. The remainder of the population should book their flu shot beginning in mid-November.

This will give your body time to build protection against the influenza virus. However, influenza vaccine can be given at anytime when the influenza virus is still circulating in the community, which can be until around April.

Q) Is influenza vaccine safe?
The side effects of the flu vaccine are mild and may include soreness where the shot was given. A few people report fever and muscle aches within one or two days of getting the shot.

The risk of the vaccine causing serious harm is extremely small. Almost all people who get the flu vaccine have no serious problems from it. The viruses in the vaccine are killed, so you cannot get the flu from the vaccine.

Q) I’ve heard that the influenza vaccine can cause other illnesses like Alzheimer’s Disease and Guillain-Barré syndrome. Is this true?
There is no evidence that the flu vaccine causes Alzheimer’s Disease. The flu vaccine does not contain aluminum, but does contain 25 micrograms of mercury, which is well within the safety daily intake level.

In 1976, an illness called Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS) was found to occur somewhat more often after influenza immunization (about 10 extra cases of GBS per 1 million doses of vaccine given in 1976-1977). This syndrome, which causes muscle paralysis, has been associated with certain infectious diseases and is very uncommon. Apart from the 1976-1977 swine flu season, the risk is one in a million doses of vaccine. By comparison, the risk of illness and death associated with influenza are much greater.

Q) How long will the protection last?
In healthy adults, protection from vaccine generally begins within about two weeks after immunization, peaks at about four to six weeks, and may last six months or longer. In the elderly, protection may wane after four months or less.

Q) If I get the flu shot every year, will my immune system become weaker, and will I get sick?
The flu vaccine protects you for the coming season. It does not weaken your ability to fight the flu or other infections. Getting a flu shot every year is your best protection against the flu and its complications.