Flu season is here and if you haven’t had a flu jab yet, it might be worth getting one sorted.
As of 11 January, Public Health England (PHE) revealed there had been 48 flu-related deaths so far this winter, including 24 deaths in the last week of 2017.
This year, Australia experienced one of its worst flu seasons on record, prompting concerns over a similar epidemic here in the UK. In September, it was reported there had been 170,000 influenza cases in Australia, double that of 2016, and more than 70 deaths related to the illness, which affected those over the age of 80 and children aged 5-9 the most.
The flu is a largely unpredictable virus which affects people in different ways.
For otherwise healthy people it can cause symptoms that will clear up in about a week, but there are some vulnerable groups - such as the elderly and pregnant women - who are at risk of potentially serious complications. According to Public Health England, on average 8,000 people die from flu each year.
A preventative flu jab is therefore offered - free of charge for at-risk groups - to minimise the impact of the virus. Here’s what you need to know about eligibility, availability and effectiveness of this year’s vaccination.
What are flu symptoms?
Flu symptoms often come on quickly with sufferers experiencing a fever, a dry chesty cough, tiredness, the chills, joint pain or aching muscles. Much of the time it will make them too unwell to do anything.
Other symptoms include: diarrhoea, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, a sore throat, a blocked or runny nose, sneezing, loss of appetite and difficulty sleeping.
How does the flu jab work?
The annual flu vaccine stimulates the body’s immune system to make antibodies attack the virus. The idea is that if you’re exposed to the flu virus after having the vaccine, your immune system will recognise it and know how to fight it.
According to the NHS, it can take 10-14 days for immunity to build up after having the vaccine.
It’s important to have the vaccine each year, as it is reformulated to try and combat different strains which scientists predict will be prevalent (more on that below).
Who should get the flu jab?
Between 2017 and 2018, the flu vaccination will be offered free of charge to:
:: those aged 65 and over
:: pregnant women
:: those aged six months to under 65 in clinical risk groups
:: people living in a residential or nursing home
:: the main carer of an older or disabled person
:: children aged 2-3
:: children in reception class and school years 1-4 (with their parents’ consent).
Where can you get the flu jab?
To get your vaccine or find out if you are eligible, contact your GP, pharmacist or midwife for more information. Some people may be offered the flu vaccine through their work’s health scheme.
You can also pay for the flu jab at a range of pharmacies including Superdrug, Boots and Lloyds Pharmacy, as well as in Asda and Tesco.
Is it suitable for vegetarians and vegans?
If you’re vegan, or a vegetarian who strictly doesn’t eat eggs, the flu vaccine won’t be suitable because it will have been incubated in egg. That said, it’s fine for people with egg allergies, according to PHE, as the levels are very low.
A spokesperson for PHE tells HuffPost UK: “The production and availability of egg-free flu vaccines is determined by flu vaccine manufacturers and they have not made any egg-free flu vaccines this season.”
Some of the flu vaccines available have a very low ovalbumin (egg protein) content - we’re talking trace amounts only. NICE has published a list of the vaccines available in the current flu season and the ovalbumin levels for each one, which you can find here.
When should you get the flu jab?
The NHS says the best time to get the flub jab is in autumn, between early October and November. If you miss this period, don’t worry you can also be vaccinated later in winter.
If you had a flu jab last year, you will need to get another flu vaccination this year.
What are the side effects?
Contrary to what many believe, you can’t catch the flu from the flu jab. The adult vaccine doesn’t contain live viruses.
You may feel a mild fever or muscle aches after your flu jab, but this is your immune system reacting to the vaccine. These symptoms should pass within a few days.
The NHS recommends the following to alleviate mild symptoms:
:: continue to move your arm regularly – don’t let it get stiff and sore
:: take a painkiller, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen – pregnant women shouldn’t take ibuprofen unless a doctor recommends and prescribes it
Serious reactions to the flu jab are rare, but they may indicate an allergic reaction. Please visit your GP if you experience severe side effects.
Which strains does it protect against?
Every year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reviews the global situation and recommends which three flu strains should go into the vaccine to be manufactured for the following season.
A spokesperson for Public Health England explains this recommendation is based on the viruses circulating each season and epidemiological data from around the world.
This process means the WHO has to decide which strains of flu to protect against before flu season has even begun and the illness has started circulating properly.
According to the NHS, most injected flu vaccines protect against three types of flu virus:
- A/H1N1 – the strain of flu that caused the swine flu pandemic in 2009
- A/H3N2 – a strain of flu that mainly affects the elderly and people with risk factors like a long term health condition. In 2017/18 the vaccine will contain an A/Hong Kong/4801/2014 H3N2-like virus.
- Influenza B – a strain of flu that particularly affects children. In 2017/18 the vaccine will contain B/Brisbane/60/2008-like virus
The nasal spray flu vaccine and some injected vaccines also offer protection against a fourth B strain of virus, which in 2017/18 is the B/Phuket/3073/2013-like virus.
The strain that has been witnessed predominantly in Australia this year is influenza A strain H3N2.
Leading infectious diseases expert Dr Peter Collignon told The Guardian that this particular strain hit the UK and other European countries last year and the vaccine for the strain “didn’t work”.
He added that it “was zero per cent effective for those over 65”.
What is the predicted success rate?
Over the past few years, success rates for the flu jab have fluctuated. In 2014, just one third of adults benefitted from the vaccine. Conversely, last year the vaccine was considered particularly effective among adults aged 18-64 - the jab reduced the risk of flu by 40.6% amongst those who received it.
In the over 65 population, however, last year’s vaccine was not very effective.
The reason success rates vary is largely due to the fact that the nature of the flu virus is unpredictable, but also because scientists have to predict which strains will be rife before flu season even starts.
A spokesperson for PHE says they cannot confidently predict how effective the vaccine will be this year, however they added that typical effectiveness of the flu vaccine is in the range of 40-60%. This means that for every 100 people vaccinated, 40 will be protected from this season’s flu.
Applied on a population level, if every ‘at risk’ person (listed above) received the flu vaccine, the risk of flu infection and, in turn, deaths caused by flu, would be greatly reduced.
Professor Paul Cosford, Director for Health Protection and Medical Director at Public Health England, tells HuffPost UK: “For someone with a long term health condition like asthma or COPD, flu has the potential to turn very serious. Last winter, uptake increased amongst people in clinical risk groups and we want to continue this trend.
“We want as many eligible people as possible to get their jab, as it is the best way to protect everyone from flu and minimise the burden on the NHS during the season when it faces the most pressures.”