Why getting a flu jab is a good idea this year

Lab results from January 2022 show an increase in respiratory illnesses and common cold cases compared to pre-Covid-19 statistics.

This is the third year in a row that South Africans face the risk of contracting flu (caused by influenza viruses) and Covid-19 (caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus) at the same time.

This is according to Dr Noluthando Nematswerani, head of the Discovery Health Centre for Clinical Excellence. Flu and Covid-19 are different illnesses, she explains.

“They are however both spread through respiratory droplets, which the body releases when we talk, cough or sneeze. Some people can get very sick from either virus or both.

“This is why many people have already jumped at the chance to have their 2022 flu shot,” says Nematswerani.

“As with Covid-19, elderly people and people with underlying medical illnesses who get flu can experience a severe illness that may require hospitalisation. The flu and Covid-19 vaccine can prevent this.”

South Africa has also, since mid-April, seen a spike in Covid-19 cases driven by Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5.

Vaccination against Covid-19 remains an important intervention in protecting against severe illness and death and when it comes to the flu, this year’s vaccine provides protection from a serious illness.

This year there are two kinds of flu vaccines available – a three-strain and a four-strain vaccine. Nematswerani encouraged people to have whichever vaccine they have access to at their healthcare facility.

Both provide protection against severe flu illness and you can get vaccinated against the flu and Covid-19 at the same time.

“You can get your flu and Covid-19 vaccine (and many other vaccines) at the same time, administered on different arms. And, if you’ve had flu or Covid-19 and recovered, then it’s safe to have your Covid-19 and flu vaccine,” she explains.

Respiratory illness cases on the rise

“Covid-19 lockdown restrictions and related preventative measures impacted the spread of other respiratory pathogens, thus suppressing the flu activity over the past two seasons.

“However, lab reports from January 2022 show an increase in cases of other respiratory illnesses and common cold cases (the common cold is different from the flu but also caused by viruses) to pre-Covid-19 levels. So this flu season could see a notable number of infections.

“Most people who get flu have mild illness with symptoms like fever, cough, headaches, muscle and joint pains, a sore throat and runny nose, and generally feeling unwell. However, for some people, flu may be severe resulting in hospitalisation and death,” explains Nematswerani.

Did you know that before the Covid-19 pandemic, South Africa lost around 11 00 people to the flu every winter? Globally, just over half a million people were dying from flu-related complications each year.

Flu vaccines are highly recommended for people most at risk of serious flu, including:

  •  People aged 65 or over
  • Children aged six months to five years
  • People living with HIV
  • People who are pregnant or postpartum (usually, the first six weeks after childbirth) – the flu vaccine is safe to have while breastfeeding
  • People who have chronic health conditions (like asthma, bronchiectasis, chronic renal disease, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes)

The flu vaccine is also a must for anyone who interacts with vulnerable people who are at increased risk for severe flu as it lowers the risk of them becoming infected and passing it on. This includes health care workers.

Four flu vaccine facts you need to know:

  • Getting a flu vaccination cannot give you flu. It simply trains your body to develop the antibodies that protect against infection and serious illness
  • After your vaccine, it takes about two weeks for antibodies to develop.
  • The flu vaccine has an excellent safety record. Common, minor side effects include pain or redness and swelling at the injection site; headache; fever; or body aches. These clear up within a day or so.
  • We have access to new flu vaccines every year because flu viruses change constantly. The vaccines are made to match circulating flu variants during the season as closely as possible.

“This year, in the ongoing context of Covid-19, our flu vaccines are a must. Flu vaccines are safe, and they protect us and others against developing the serious flu-related illness. They are available at our local clinics, doctors’ rooms and at most pharmacies,” says Nematswerani.