The NHS is calling for people to get their flu jab, not only to protect themselves but also to limit the impact on the health service which last year experienced a record-breaking crisis – in part because of a particularly bad strain of flu.
The influenza virus causes coughs, tiredness and fever in most people but can have serious complications like pneumonia that may require emergency treatment, and not getting ill is the best protection.
Who should get the jab?
Adults who are more at risk of infections turning serious, including those over the age of 65, people with long-term medical conditions, and pregnant women can get the flu jab free from their GP, pharmacist, or midwifery service.
Children age two and three can also be vaccinated at their GP practice, while those in school up to year five will be offered the flu vaccination in a nasal spray at school.
This will protect them, but it is also a way to protect vulnerable grandparents and relatives as children are often in very close contact with each other and less likely to cover coughs and sneezes.
High street pharmacists also offer the jab privately. In most cases this costs between £10 and £12 but some of the cheapest options are in big supermarkets, such as Asda and Tesco, with in-store chemists.
Check your local options as some might need you to book an appointment beforehand.
Does it work?
No flu jab is 100-per-cent effective as the virus is constantly spreading and mutating, and international travel allows an exotic strain from Japan to pop up in Manchester in a matter of days.
The World Health Organisation evaluates these global trends and it has to forecast which strains are going to be dominant a year later so that there is enough time to build up stocks and get people vaccinated.
Last year there were signs the jab was less effective than hoped, but there were also three 3 million vulnerable people who had not had the jab by January. There is ample evidence to suggest that a flu jab improves your chances of not getting ill and the head of the NHS in England, Simon Stevens, said in October 2018 that this year’s jab is “more effective than ever”.
This is thanks to a “quadrivalent” vaccine, which protects against four types of flu and is available across the UK this year.
For most children and adults this is the standard option but over 65s are still being offered the trivalent – three strains – vaccine as it is more effective for them.
Is it safe?
The jab is given to millions of people every year and side effects are rare. For most the worst effects they can expect are a sore arm and occasionally some tiredness or headaches.
A recent poll showed a fifth of UK adults fear the jab will give them the flu, but this concern is misplaced and can put people at risk if they have long-term conditions where flu is a threat.
In some rare cases a patient can have a severe allergic reaction, whichi will occur within a few minutes or hours and should treated as serious.
There were also reports this year, in a study funded by the US Centre for Disease Control, about miscarriage rates being higher in women who had the jab. These findings will obviously be of concern to mothers – who are in the group where the jab is recommended – but the design of the study means it cannot prove the jab caused the miscarriages, and can only show an association.
There are a number of factors the study cannot take into account and the trend is being thoroughly investigated. In the meantime neither the CDC or NHS have changed their recommendation on vaccinations in pregnancy.
Do I need it?
Twelve months ago, Simon Stevens was warning that a “heavy outbreak” was coming as early signs from Australia and New Zealand – whose winter is during our summer – was of a record-breaking flu season.
That prediction came to pass but news from the southern hemisphere has so far been more reassuring this year, thanks in part to the quadrivalent jab.
While there are stories each year of healthy young people who die from flu, the fact that they make headlines if because they are so rare and people outside the at risk groups should not be worried.
Those who are concerned can look at getting a jab, and doing so in October or November for best protection.