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Dr Pete Vincent of the Netcare travel clinics and Medicross Tokai family medical and dental centre, says although the influenza, or flu, ‘season’ is only just starting in South Africa, a number of people have already contracted the flu.
“The countries within the northern hemisphere, such as the United States, have had a relatively severe 2017/2018 flu season. That is usually an indication that we may also have a bad flu season here in South Africa during our upcoming winter months,” observes Dr Vincent.
“If you consider that flu-related complications result in the death of between a 6 000 to 11 000 South Africans every year, and thousands of economically productive hours are lost as a result of the illness, we would argue that every flu season is severe, particularly for those who are more at risk,” he notes.
“All South Africans who want to protect themselves and their families this upcoming flu season, which is usually considered to run from April through to August, should consider having a flu shot.
“The influenza vaccine is still considered by healthcare authorities the world over, including our National Institute of Communicable Diseases [NICD], to offer individuals and communities the best protection available against influenza. And, for those who are at high risk of developing potentially serious complications such as pneumonia, the vaccine should be mandatory,” comments Dr Vincent.
He advises that sportspeople or other South Africans who have contracted flu refrain from engaging in sports, extended periods of strenuous physical activity and physical exercise until their doctor gives them the go-ahead, as the combination of flu and exercise can have serious long-term health consequences.
According to Dr Vincent, the H3N2 influenza virus strain has proved particularly virulent in the United States this year, and he says that this strain has been strongly associated with complications such as pneumonia.
“Bacterial pneumonia can be very dangerous for anyone, but is particularly so for high-risk individuals, such as the elderly, babies, small children, pregnant women and anyone else with a compromised immune system. Such individuals should also seriously consider having the pneumonia vaccine administered along with the flu shot.
“A new single dose vaccine is available which protects against the common streptococcus bacteria that causes pneumonia. This vaccine can provide many years of protection against this dangerous illness, and life-long protection for those over the age of 60,” he advises.
The flu vaccine is developed annually according to World Health Organization (WHO) strain recommendations, for both the southern and northern hemisphere flu seasons. The annual southern hemisphere vaccine, which is available to South Africans, usually provides protection from the three strains of the flu virus that are identified by WHO researchers as likely to be the most prevalent during that particular season.
“It has been estimated that in South Africa some 50% of flu-related deaths occur in the elderly and approximately 30% in people with HIV/Aids. This underscores just how important it is to protect such at-risk groups of people in particular,” observes Dr Vincent.
He suggests that the individuals most at risk of developing serious complications from flu include:
· Those who are 65 years of age and older;
· Individuals who have respiratory conditions such as asthma and emphysema;
· People who may have compromised immune systems such as HIV-positive individuals, or those undergoing radiation or chemotherapy for cancer;
· Those who have chronic conditions such as heart or kidney failure or diabetes;
· Women who are in their second or third trimester of pregnancy;
· Babies and small children.
“Despite what we may read on Facebook, the flu vaccine is safe and, while it does not always offer a complete safeguard against the illness, it does usually offer a good measure of protection. In fact, this vaccine can and does save many lives every year and we recommend that all South Africans should consider having it,” concludes Dr Vincent.