Head of the Centre for Clinical Excellence at Discovery Health, Dr Noluthando Nematswerani, is urging the medical scheme’s members to get the flu shot following the surge of cases in the US that have led to higher number of hospitalisations, serious infections and in some cases, death.

The winter’s colder months are almost here and this means that the time has once again come for us, living in the southern hemisphere, to take up the annual fight against flu. Current reports from the US, which usually sees a peak in the occurrence of flu around February, have called the recent strain of flu ‘formidable’, owing to the upsurge of flu cases that led to a higher-than-usual number of serious infections, hospitalisations and even deaths.

“The flu is different from the common cold. Flu is caused by a family of viruses, spreads easily and can cause serious infections. There are many different strains and strengths of flu viruses that are always changing. While some people let these viruses run their course without taking precautionary steps, people must know that complications from flu, like pneumonia and the effects of flu combined with other health conditions, can be very serious, even fatal,” said Dr Nematswerani.

“We therefore urge all our members to get vaccinated with the flu vaccine to enable their bodies to develop the antibodies necessary to ward off influenza viruses,” continued Dr Nematswerani.

Vaccinate early

We usually get similar strains of flu to the ones in the US and given the high rate of complications being reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention following their recent flu season, early vaccination can help reduce flu cases in South Africa.

The most effective way to give your body extra power to fight off the flu or to protect yourself against its severe complications is to get a flu vaccine before the flu season starts. “This year, we urge everyone and especially those who are at a higher risk for developing complications to get vaccinated as early as March or April at the latest. But, really, they can still benefit from having a flu injection at any time during the winter months,” said Dr Nematswerani.

This year’s flu vaccine has just become available in South Africa. It has been reformulated to improve its effectiveness during the South African flu season. Reformulation is important as viruses are constantly changing their genetic make-up to avoid detection from antibodies that develop in the body after getting the vaccine. Through reformulation, we stay one step ahead of the viruses, by strengthening the power of the vaccine, based on which viruses were circulating in the northern hemisphere as recently as a few months ago.

The protection you get from the vaccine can be made even stronger by additional steps that boost your immunity such as eating healthily and exercising regularly. Also, try to reduce your exposure to circulating viruses by avoiding contact with people who have the flu, and staying home if you do get the flu to prevent its spread at work and amongst friends.

“We recommend the registered, seasonal flu vaccine for everyone. But, complications more often occur in children younger than five, people older than 65, pregnant women, people living in care facilities, and in anyone with a chronic health condition, such as asthma, heart or kidney disease, diabetes or a weakened immune system. So, it is beneficial to develop antibodies against a current strain of flu virus by being vaccinated early every year,” said Dr Nematswerani.

Vaccines don’t cause flu

Dr Nematswerani says it takes about two weeks following a flu injection to develop antibodies and confirms that a flu vaccine by an injection will not make you sick. It could happen that you are exposed to the flu virus before or during the two-week period that it takes to develop virus antibodies or become exposed to a circulating seasonal strain not included in the vaccine. She also points out that other illnesses, including a common cold, can have similar symptoms to the flu

“There are many myths around the flu vaccine. Myths in medicine are not restricted to the flu vaccine. But myths are not science, and the flu vaccine has been thoroughly researched through scientific trials like any other medicine, before being approved for use,” said Dr Nematswerani.

“Generally, flu vaccines contain some egg protein. If you are allergic to egg, you can ask your doctor for other options. Also, if you have ever had a severe reaction to the vaccine in the past, check with your doctor to find out if it was related to the vaccine or could have been something else. Some people may experience minor side effects after a flu injection; these include pain at the injection site, a headache or a slight fever. However, these typically pass in a day or two after you have had your injection,” explained Dr Nematswerani.

Check how your medical scheme pays for flu vaccinations

Medical schemes, such as Discovery Health Medical Scheme, provide cover for flu injections, either from the available day-to-day benefits or chronic benefits. When you are registered for cover for a chronic condition, the medical scheme may also pay it from your insured benefits because you are taking steps to prevent complications. With flu-season fast approaching, be aware of flu and its complications.

The call to action is clear: have your flu injection early for protection against complications. Flu vaccines are safe, proven to protect and are available at most pharmacies, doctors’ rooms and certain clinics.

Discovery Vitality members can earn 1,000 Vitality points when vaccinating against flu.

Visit www.discovery.co.za to see how you can claim your points.

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