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The overshadowing of influenza by COVID-19

16 May 2022 Profmed

Clinical Executive Justine Lacy reveals the decline in flu vaccination and offers advice on why more South Africans should get the vaccine.

2022 marks the third consecutive year that South Africans have been at risk of contracting both COVID-19 and the flu, sometimes in one deadly go. According to the Clinical Executive at medical scheme Profmed Justine Lacy, vaccination needs to be seriously considered during the flu season. Vaccines, which have existed for decades, have been crucial both in the eradication of debilitating childhood diseases but also in the reduction of severe diseases in illnesses such as influenza. Yet, Lacy says, flu vaccination has been on the decline.

“For the last few years, everyone has been so focused on COVID-19, that flu has been forgotten about. Influenza is still a threat, especially to those who are vulnerable. Therefore, vaccination is the most prudent course of action for all South Africans.”

Lacy says that in the 2020 and 2021 periods, Profmed saw a drop in members claiming for flu vaccines. Year on year, Profmed has seen only 20% of its chronic membership base get the flu vaccine. “All people with chronic conditions should be getting vaccinated.”

She says that there is no reason why a person should not have their flu shot as the Winter season approaches unless this is contraindicated. If you have already had the COVID-19 vaccine, it is advised that you still get the flu vaccine because the COVID-19 vaccine will not protect you against flu, just as the flu vaccine will not protect you against COVID-19. Please contact your healthcare practitioner for more information about the vaccines and what a safe interval would be for you to get both vaccines.

Lacy adds that while COVID-19 may still be a serious threat, South Africans should not forget that influenza also kills many people each year. According to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, annual estimates of between 7000 and 12000 seasonal influenza-associated deaths have been reported in South Africa. “This is a clear indication that not enough people are vaccinating against the flu. Low vaccination numbers are also reflected in Profmed’s case,” says Lacy.

In South Africa, our flu season starts in March, as we go into Autumn, and reaches its peak during June - the Winter months. It is advisable to get vaccinated before the flu season begins but even if you only get vaccinated later in the season, the vaccine will still be effective.

It is important to correct some of the myths about the flu vaccine. Lacy confirms that the flu vaccine does not provide full immunity against influenza but rather protects against severe disease and complications related to influenza. Seasonal influenza (flu) vaccines are designed to protect against the four main groups of flu Type A and B viruses that research indicates are most likely to spread and cause illness among people during the upcoming flu season.
The flu vaccine enables one’s body to respond more effectively to the flu. There is a chance that one might contract flu, after receiving the vaccine, but this is likely to be a milder illness that is short-lived and easily treated.

The flu vaccine is usually available from March at all pharmacy clinics and most GP’s rooms. However, it is always a good idea to check ahead, Lacy says. Some companies provide flu vaccine availability to their employees through workplace wellness programmes. “Most medical schemes cover the cost of the flu vaccine under Preventative Care, but it is advisable to check your scheme’s Schedule of Benefits to confirm this. The cost of the vaccine may be anywhere from R110 if you are paying for it out of pocket, which is a small price to pay for peace of mind.

Lacy recommends that all people, get an annual flu vaccination, whether you are young, older, vulnerable, or healthy. “In South Africa, the burden of communicable diseases greatly threatens the health sector, as recently demonstrated by the COVID-19 pandemic that placed tremendous pressure on healthcare workers and the sector alike.”

“Nonpharmaceutical Interventions (NPIs) are actions, apart from getting vaccinated and taking medicine, that people and communities can exercise to help slow the spread of illnesses like influenza (flu). They include staying home when you are sick, covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue and washing hands with soap and water, or using hand sanitizer when soap and water is not available. Let’s all work together to stay healthy,” she concludes.

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