With Christmas fast approaching – meaning all of the social gatherings – Public Health England is urging people to get vaccinated against flu, and fast.
Fewer people have had the vaccine in 2018, compared with the same time last year, according to the BBC. PHE has stressed that pregnant women and those aged 65 and over should get the flu jab as soon as possible.
The combination of people socialising more throughout December and Christmas-time typically being the height of flu season, means the risk of flu spreading is far higher. The vaccine takes two weeks to kick in properly, so it’s worth having it this week if you want some protection over the Christmas break.
This winter there are two flu vaccines on offer. The quadrivalent vaccine, which protects against four strains of flu, is available to those under 65, for the first time ever in the UK – in previous years, the flu vaccine only protected against three.
Meanwhile the over-65s are being offered an immune-boosting vaccine which only protects against three strains, but is still highly recommended for this age group.
Last year there were 15,000 deaths caused by flu in England (almost double the national average).
Public Health England’s medical director Professor Paul Cosford said that strains of flu circulating in the southern hemisphere’s winter are similar to last year. Although it has been a mild season in terms of flu in the southern hemisphere, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will be a mild flu season in the UK, he added.
Cosford warned the public that the number one way to protect against flu is to have a vaccination. So which should you have?
The standard jab
This year’s quadrivalent vaccine - generally available to most people aged 65 and under - protects against the following flu strains:
:: Influenza A/H1N1 – the strain of flu that caused the swine flu pandemic in 2009.
:: Influenza A/H3N2 – a strain of flu (otherwise known as Australian flu) that mainly affects the elderly and people with long-term health conditions. Professor Cosford said the vaccine wasn’t as effective as they’d hoped in protecting against this strain last year.
:: Influenza B/Brisbane – a strain of flu that particularly affects children.
:: Influenza B/Yamagata (otherwise known as Japanese flu) - a strain of flu that impacts children more, however last winter it also impacted the elderly.
A nasal spray version of the vaccine will also be on offer to children and young people aged two to 17 years in an eligible group.
The immune-boosting jab
The ‘adjuvanted trivalent’ vaccine works by improving the body’s immune response to the vaccine. This is important because typically older adults’ bodies do not respond as well to the flu vaccine due to their naturally weaker immune systems. They are also more likely to suffer complications from flu.
PHE estimates this vaccine, which is available to the over-65s only, will reduce GP consultations by 30,000. It’s also thought there will be 2,000 fewer hospitalisations and 700 hospital deaths prevented as a result of the jab being on offer.
The jab wasn’t available last year as it was only licensed for use in the UK in 2017. It protects against three strands of flu, as there currently isn’t an immune-boosting vaccine that protects against the four strains.
The downside is that it doesn’t protect against Japanese flu, however health officials believe there might be some “cross protection” offered from the other strains the jab protects against.
Who gets the vaccine for free?
24 million people will be offered free flu vaccines this season - that’s three million more than last year. It will be offered to the following groups:
:: those aged 65 and over
:: those aged 18-64 with a long-term health condition
:: children aged 2-3 years old via their GP practice
:: children in reception class and school years 1-5
:: pregnant women
:: health and social care workers (including hospice workers)
:: morbidly obese people
Where can you get the vaccine?
:: GP practices.
:: Pharmacies (including Superdrug, Boots, Lloyds Pharmacy, Asda and Tesco).
:: Some people may be offered the flu vaccine through their work’s health scheme.
Are there any side effects?
Side effects of the nasal vaccine can include a runny or blocked nose, headache, tiredness and some loss of appetite. The injection can cause a sore arm, low grade fever and aching muscles for a day or two afterwards.
Is the flu vaccine suitable for 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 previously told 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.”
What are the symptoms of flu?
Flu differs from the common cold in that symptoms are usually far worse. People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose, while 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.
Other ways to prevent it
Practice good hand hygiene – for example, washing your hands with soap and warm water before preparing and eating food, or after using public transport –and avoid having unnecessary contact with other people if you or they are experiencing symptoms of flu.