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Doctors urge vaccination as flu cases spike

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Amid a rise in influenza cases with some patients experiencing severe symptoms, the flu vaccine has become a hot topic. Just what kind of protection does it offer, and what other ways are there to boost immunity?

“There has been a massive spike in influenza statistics over the past three to four weeks, as shown at my own practice and through chatting to colleagues,” says family practitioner Dr Sheri Fanaroff. Laboratory reports from organisations including the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, Ampath, and Lancet confirm this.

Fanaroff says her patients are generally experiencing a sudden onset of symptoms. These often include high fever, body aches and pains, and a sore throat. These early symptoms are quickly followed by a spectrum of coughs, from a mild cough to a severe one with respiratory distress where people struggle with breathing and low oxygen levels. “There have been a number of quite serious flu cases, with some people ending up in hospital or requiring oxygen or treatment for severe flu symptoms,” she says.

In light of such trends, building immunity against flu is particularly important. The flu vaccine has long been thought to be one of the most effective means of preventing flu from striking. While no vaccine is 100% effective, says Fanaroff, the flu vaccine is said to offer a 60% to 70% prevention rate.

“In my experience, patients who have been vaccinated against flu for that season generally don’t get it in that season,” she says. “They obviously may be vulnerable to a multitude of other viruses that are around, but they generally don’t get influenza. In cases where they do get it, it’s generally a much milder illness than it may have been otherwise.”

Anyone over the age of six months can have the vaccine, says Fanaroff. She advises those who are allergic or who have had a severe reaction to the flu vaccine in the past not to have the vaccine. However high-risk groups who are particularly advised to vaccinate include those over the age of 65, pregnant women, anyone with an underlying illness or compromised immune system, and children under the age of two who are vulnerable to becoming ill from infection.

“Regardless, as many people as possible should vaccinate to get better immune stimulation to bring about herd immunity,” says general practitioner Dr Tracy Paiken. Though the flu vaccine doesn’t protect against all flu-causing viruses, it’s still vital in reducing the burden of illness, and the more we do that the better, she says. “Ideally, it will lessen severity of illness by stimulating the immune system to fight.”

Though there are no new mutations of influenza this year, to address the fact that flu viruses do mutate frequently, new strains are regularly added to the vaccine. “However, if the composition of the vaccine is different to what you are exposed to, and you don’t have an optimally functioning immune system, you may still contract the flu,” says homeopath and evidence-based integrative practitioner Dr Jaci Schultz.

For those that argue against the flu vaccine’s efficacy, Fanaroff points to the importance of timing. People often wait to hear about multiple flu cases before vaccinating instead of doing so at the beginning of the season, she says. “Once vaccinated, it takes about two weeks for your body to develop antibodies and be protected against flu. So, during that time, you’re still quite vulnerable.

“We also regularly get reports of people who are already experiencing that flu feeling and only then decide to vaccinate. Then they go on to have full-blown flu two days later, because they’ve already been exposed to the virus, but sometimes the flu vaccine gets blamed for causing it. The flu vaccine isn’t a live virus, it cannot cause the flu.”

People generally report mild side effects after having had the vaccine, the most common of which is a sore arm which generally is resolved within two days. “A number of people do experience a fluey, ‘off’ feeling for two days after having the vaccine, which can include anything from headache to mild body pain to even a mild fever. Yet, that’s just a sign of your body mounting an immune response to the vaccine,” Fanaroff says.

Experts say the reported increase in flu severity could be due to a number of factors. Often other viruses are mistakenly diagnosed as flu, Fanaroff says, pointing to the prevalence of other respiratory infections especially rhinovirus.

Other factors for rising flu cases include the fact that there are three bad strains currently circulating – Influenza A; Swine flu (H1N1); and COVID-19, says Schultz. “All three of these strains are very contagious. While there are some similarities in symptoms between these illnesses such as fever, cough, and fatigue, they are caused by different viruses and may have distinct patterns of transmission, severity, and long-term effects.”

She also suggests that many people may have lower immunity due to having worn masks for a number of years during the COVID-19 pandemic. “As much as this thankfully limited our exposure to COVID-19, it also prevented our immune system from building antibodies to all the other viruses around us,” she says.

Paiken suggests mental health may also play a role in flu severity. “We always have a lot of respiratory illness, but perhaps people are more stressed with life circumstances, placing a strain on whole body health.”

Aside from vaccinating, flu prevention includes maintaining hand hygiene, staying home when sick, wearing a mask, and keeping crowded rooms well ventilated.

To fight infection proactively, you could also adopt a homeopathic approach, Schultz says. “We want a patient’s own immune system to be able to recognise a pathogen and mount an immune response,” she says. Schultz prescribes supplements that assist with the allergic responses that increase the risk of infection; well-absorbed antioxidants that assist the patient’s own immune response; and specific homeopathic medications that promote flu prevention.

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