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Coronavirus – should you still have a flu vaccine?

02 June 2020 Bonitas Medical Fund

The flu season is officially underway and, while Coronavirus is bringing the world to a standstill, it is important to remember that flu can be deadly too. Which is why it is important to have a flu vaccine.

Every year there is a debate about flu vaccinations, yet up to 11 800 people die from illness associated with seasonal influenza, and is it a common cause of severe acute respiratory illness requiring treatment in hospital.

What is flu?
Influenza, commonly known as the “flu”, is an infection of the respiratory tract caused by influenza viruses. There are three types of seasonal influenza viruses – A, B and C. In SA, the influenza season usually occurs between May and September.

Influenza viruses are also an important cause of pneumonia or lower respiratory tract infection (LRTI) and approximately 8-10% of all patients with pneumonia test positive for influenza.

According to the National Institute for Communicable Disease (NICD) certain individuals are at a higher risk of severe influenza-related disease and death, including:
• The elderly
• HIV-infected individuals
• Pregnant women

Influenza infection may cause worsening in control of diabetes, pulmonary (e.g. asthma) or cardiovascular disease. For this reason, people with underlying chronic medical conditions or comorbidities are also at high risk of influenza complications, often resulting in hospitalisation and even death. The highest rates of influenza-associated hospitalisation are in those aged over 65 years, HIV-infected individuals and children under 5 years (in particular children under 1 year).

Bonitas Medical Fund encourages you to be vaccinated against seasonal flu as the vaccination is the most effective method for prevention and control of influenza infection. It may also reduce the number of people who get severe disease (e.g. bronchopneumonia, hospital admission and mortality).

Although this message goes out every year, one wonders why many people don’t get vaccinated. Lee Callakoppen, Principal Officer of Bonitas Medical Fund, says, ‘there are a number of reasons people argue against the vaccine, including: ‘I don’t get flu’, ‘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.’

The Bonitas clinical team unpack some facts about ‘flu’, how it affects your body and offer compelling reasons why you should consider getting vaccinated this year.

How does the flu spread?
These viruses live in an infected person’s nose and throat and can easily spread when you speak, sneeze or cough. It becomes infectious, which means it can also make someone else sick and is easily spread from person to person.

How the flu affects your body
In most people the flu is uncomplicated. It may cause fever (high body temperatures), cough, sore throat, headache, fatigue, sore muscles and/or joints. It may sometimes cause nausea and diarrhoea.

However, some people may experience more complicated or severe flu symptoms and signs of lower respiratory tract infection (e.g. difficulties breathing), seizures and/or a significant worsening of an underlying medical condition (e.g. diabetes).

Why the flu vaccine is important
We recommend that you and members of your family get vaccinated to reduce your risk of developing the flu this season. By having the vaccine you may also protect vulnerable individuals who are not able to have the vaccine (e.g. infants under 6 months old).

Bonitas offers a free annual flu vaccine to all members on all plans. This benefit is paid for from risk and does not impact your savings or day-to-day benefits.

Should I be worried about side-effects?
The most common side effects from the vaccine are a sore arm, redness or swelling where the vaccine was injected. Serious allergic reactions to flu vaccines are very rare.

Flu vaccination during the COVID-19 pandemic
The flu vaccine is not active against the novel coronavirus and will not protect you from becoming infected, it will however, offer protection against the influenza virus.

The South African Department of Health is anticipating significantly increased demand for flu vaccination this year and has published guidelines on influenza vaccination for 2020 that prioritise supply to the following vulnerable groups in order of priority:
- Health care workers
- Individuals over the age of 65 years
- People with cardiovascular disease (including chronic heart disease, hypertension, stroke and diabetes), and chronic lung disease (including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
- Pregnant women
- People living with HIV and AIDS

Is there anyone who should not get a flu vaccine?
The flu vaccine is NOT recommended for
• Individuals who are allergic to eggs or egg proteins as the manufacturing process for the vaccine involves the use of chicken eggs
• Infants under 6 months of age as the vaccines are not licensed for use in such young children
• Individuals who may have had a severe reaction to a flu vaccine in the past - if you are unsure discuss with your healthcare provider
• Individuals who may be suffering from flu symptoms already

When to get vaccinated?
The sooner the better, before the winter flu season hits us. However due to the fact we are in COVID-19 lockdown we recommend that you first call to check that your doctor or pharmacy has the vaccine in stock and make an appointment. This is to reduce time spent at the doctor’s rooms or pharmacy. During the process wear a mask, maintain social distancing of 2m with other members of the public, avoid touching countertops and sanitise your hands and also wash your hands thoroughly once you’re back home.

Callakoppen says, ‘While the world focusses on the novel coronavirus, social distancing, hand washing or sanitisation and wearing a mask can help protect you from both COVID-19 and flu.’

*Subject to availability of stock due to increased demand for the flu vaccine this season.


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