Obviously there is a vaccination everyone is hyper focused on right now. But this year it’s even more important to get your flu jab. Why?
People are often concerned about having jabs. We’re not talking about the hardline anti-vaxxers out there, but many who sit in the middle, wondering if it’s okay, wondering if the cure is worse than the ill.
This has always been true particularly the flu jab, largely because of the mild symptoms that follow an innoculation. Old wives’ tales circulate wildly. Will it make them weaker, and therefore more susceptible to Covid? Will the flu vaccine actually give you a mild dose of flu? How does it work?
We spoke to Dr Deborah Lee to find out exactly how the flu vaccine works, and why you should have one…
It may seem illogical that being vaccinated against the influenza virus can also help protect you from the COVID-19 virus, but in fact there are several reasons why this seems to be the case.
How does the flu vaccine work?
A flu vaccine contains dead influenza virus. You cannot get the flu from having the vaccine. The current flu vaccine contains four different strains of influenza. Your body recognises the proteins on the dead virus surface, called antigens, and mounts an antibody response.
This means if you encounter these influenza viruses, you will not develop the infections, as your new flu antibodies, will immediately counteract them.
Every year scientists calculate the degree of protection having a flu jab will give you. This year, the flu jab will reduce your chance of getting the flu by around 40%.
A flu jab may also give some protection from COVID-19 infection
The flu jab protects you from becoming infected with the influenza virus. But there is some evidence it may also give you some protection from infection by COVID-19.
…there is some evidence it may also give you some protection from infection by COVID-19
Virologists believe there are similarities between the way the influenza virus and the COVID-19 virus enter the cells of your body. This means the antibody response to the flu vaccination may also help prevent other viruses from infecting you.
Once the influenza vaccine stimulates an immune response, there is ‘cross-talk’ in the immune system, meaning white blood cells such as lymphocytes and neutrophils pass chemical messages. As a result, when any other invading organism appears, it is more quickly recognized, and the immune response is more robust. Hence, a flu jab primes the immune system for a COVID-19 attack.
If you are at risk from flu you will be more at risk from COVID-19
Influenza is a serious illness and can be fatal. However, COVID-19 is an even more serious infection, and the risk of dying from Covid infection is approximately three times higher. The risk factors for severe infection for both are the same.
In the UK, between January and August 2020, there were 394 deaths from influenza, compared to 48,168 deaths due to COVID-19, and 13,619 deaths from pneumonia (ONS)
The most serious risk would occur if you had flu and COVID-19 at the same time
There has been an exceptionally low number of cases of influenza this year so far, but even looking at the last 5-year averages, Covid has a death rate three times higher than influenza.
However, older people with chronic medical conditions, and a relatively weakened immune system, will be at increased risk from influenza. But even more at risk if they become infected with COVID-19.
In one 2019 study of 1,726 patients admitted to hospital with influenza, 595 patients (34.5%) required ITU admission, and 224 patients (13%) died. Older age was identified as a major risk factor for death.
In a previous study, only 16% of those admitted to ITU with influenza B had had a flu vaccination.
The most serious risk would occur if you had flu and COVID-19 at the same time.
Having flu and COVID-19 at the same time is likely to be even more serious for your health
In a paper published in September 2020, by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) the authors calculated the risk of death from coinfection – with both influenza and COVID-19. People with both infections were more than twice as likely to die compared to those who had COVID-19 alone.
For people admitted to ITU who needed mechanical ventilation, being infected with both influenza and COVID-19 increased the risk of death more than six times.
The authors concluded there was a strong interactive effect between the two viruses.
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Older people are at more at risk from COVID-19
The fact older people are more at risk from COVID-19 infection has been known from early in the pandemic. This is probably because older people tend to have more comorbidities, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, raised cholesterol, obesity, and smoking. Older people also have a relatively weaker immune system.
…the greatest increase in rates of COVID-19 infection has been in the 55-64 year age group
Older people are more commonly becoming infected with COVID-19. Recently, scientists have noted the greatest increase in rates of COVID-19 infection has been in the 55-64 year age group, and in those aged 65 and over.
Having a flu jab means you are helping reduce pressure on the NHS
By having a flu jab you are helping reduce the pressure on the NHS and social care staff.
Did you know… having a flu vaccine:
- Reduces the need for a doctor’s appointment by 40%.
- Reduces admissions to ITU by 82%.
- In young children aged 6 months or less, having a flu jab reduces hospital admission by 41%, and reduces admissions to pediatric ITU by 50%.
Having flu jab can prevent a heart attack
When you have a flu jab, if you have cardiovascular risk factors, your risk of having a heart attack is reduced by 15-45%. Thus, having a flu jab offers a similar degree of protection from having a heart attack, for example, as taking statins – this reduces the risk by 19-30%, or stopping smoking – this reduces the risk by 32-43%.
Here’s the reason why. Once you become infected with the influenza virus, your immune system is activated and your immune response swings into action. There is a great outpouring of cytokines – molecules which are chemical messengers. Your body is now in a state of inflammation, meaning any existing pathology, for example, atheromatous plaques (fatty deposits) in your arteries are more likely to become dislodged or rupture, and there is an increased of thrombosis (blood clotting). Ruptured plaques and blood clots are the main cause of heart attacks and strokes.
If you have cardiovascular disease or risk factors, you are strongly recommended to have a flu jab and prevent this from taking place.
The British Heart Foundation strongly recommends anyone with cardiovascular disease has a flu jab.
If you have chronic lung disease, having a flu jab reduces the risk of your condition worsening, and the need for hospital admission
A recent 2017 literature review identified 48 studies of people with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and flu vaccination. Although it was difficult to make a good comparison, because of the types of studies which exist, the authors concluded that having a flu vaccination does have a positive risk-benefit ratio for COPD patients.
The authors commented that older people tend to have weaker immune systems and that the vaccine stimulates the immune system.
Several studies COPD patients who had been vaccinated, had lower death rates due to respiratory exacerbations, than in those who had not.
Patients with COPD are strongly recommended by national and international authorities to have a flu vaccination.
Taskforce for Lung Health strongly recommend anyone with chronic lung disease has a flu jab.
If you are diabetic, having a flu jab has been shown to reduce your risk of hospital admission.
People suffering from diabetes have a significantly higher need for admission to hospital if they become infected with influenza and have a higher risk of complication, and death.
When they have the flu, many diabetics find their diabetes goes out of control and they require hospital care.
Diabetics respond well to the flu vaccination and achieve a good antibody response.
In one 2016 study involving 125.503 adults with type-2 diabetes, the risk of death from influenza, was 24% lower in diabetics who had had the flu vaccination compared to the risk of dying in those who had not.
Diabetics are strongly recommended to have a flu vaccination. Having a flu can keep you well and keep you out of hospital.
Diabetes UK strongly recommend anyone with diabetes has a flu jab.
If you have had a flu jab, you greatly reduce your chance of ITU admission
One 2018 New Zealand study reported that If you are admitted to hospital with flu, your prognosis is better, if you have had a flu jab in the past. In this stud, those who had been previously vaccinated reduced their chance of needing admission to ITU by 59%, and their hospital stay was around 4 days shorter.
There’s no beating about the bush – both flu and COVID-19 are serious infections. It’s surely preferably to take steps not to become infected with either one of them.
Interestingly, as we have seen here, experts believe that vaccination against the flu can also reduce your risk of a serious COVID-19 infection.
Flu vaccination is safe, effective, free and easy to obtain. Don’t miss out on something which could help save your life.
By having a flu vaccination, you are also protecting those around you, many of whom may be older, vulnerable, or sick. The more people who have a flu vaccination, the less the flu virus can spread through the community.
It’s time to stop thinking about your flu jab and get it done. Don’t delay. Contact your GP practice now and find out how you can have a flu vaccination.
For more information
NHS – Flu vaccine
by Dr Deborah Lee, Dr Fox Online Pharmacy
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