Influenza in South Africa

Influenza (also known as flu) kills between 6000-11,000 South Africans every year. About half of those deaths are in the elderly, and about 30% in HIV-infected people. People with HIV, tuberculosis, the elderly, infants, pregnant women and those with chronic illnesses like diabetes or lung disease are at increased risk of severe flu.

Getting a flu vaccine is the best way to prevent getting sick from influenza this winter. The best time to get your flu vaccine is before the season starts (March-June) but getting it later may still protect you. Vaccinating people at risk of severe flu directly protects them and vaccinating close contacts is important for protecting babies(who are too young to vaccinate) and others at high risk. Vaccinating pregnant women protects both mom and baby.

Influenza or flu is a group of viruses that spread from person to person. Flu can cause many different symptoms but commonly causes fever, cough, sore throat and body aches. Flu can also be severe, requiring hospitalisation.Flu viruses spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk,or by touching a surface or an object that has flu virus on it and then touching your mouth, eyes or nose. A person with flu may be contagious 1 day before symptoms appear and for 3-7 days after symptoms begin.

The flu vaccine contains 3 different types of inactivated flu viruses or pieces of those viruses. Inactivated means that the viruses have been changed (killed) and cannot give you flu! Anyone who is at increased risk of severe flu (e.g. pregnant women, HIV-infected persons, the elderly, persons with chronic illnesses, etc.) or anyone aged 6 months or older that wants to protect themselves from flu should get the vaccine. People who have had a severe reaction to the flu vaccine or any component of the vaccine should nottake the flu vaccine.

If you have a mild cold or flu-like symptoms you can still get the flu vaccine, even if you have a fever. If you are sick enough to visit the emergency department or hospital you should wait to get your flu vaccine.

On average the vaccine is about 60% effective against flu viruses in healthy adults. Flu vaccine does not prevent other viruses from causing colds during the winter season, it only prevents influenza viruses. The strains of flu viruses can change from year to year and protection typically lasts less than 1 year, therefore you should get the flu vaccine annually.

To protect yourself from flu, practice good hygiene – wash your hands frequently, cough into your sleeve, limit your exposure to sick individuals, and do not share eating and drinking utensils unless they have been washed. If you are sick, stay home and get better. Visit your health care provider as needed. Annual vaccination against influenza is the best strategy for preventing disease and severe complications from influenza!

For more information you can talk to your health care provider