That’s nearly nearly one-in-five people, with an estimated seven percent of these requiring admission to an intensive care unit. So it stands to reason that avoiding contagion, wherever possible, is a great idea!
What is influenza?
The flu, or influenza, is not actually a single disease, but is instead a diverse family of viruses which can affect not just people, but also other mammals and also birds. You might remember stories about bird flu or pig flu from a few years ago – these are both the flu in a different form. This family of viruses is highly contagious and changes very quickly and typically waxes and wanes seasonally, with the greatest frequency of cases typically in the winter months.
Influenza has affected humanity for millennia, and was originally thought to be caused by the affects of the moon and stars. The 1918 ‘Spanish Flu’ was a particularly deadly variant which struck at the end of the First World War, spread as far as the Arctic and killed more than the war itself.
The flu is very easily spread, particularly through the air via coughing and sneezing, or any surface which is covered by the minute vapour coughing and sneezing produces. This is why it is so important to cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze and to thoroughly wash your hands, especially when you’re sick. The disease can even be transmitted between species, like birds, though infections from other people are far more common.
Symptoms of the flu can vary, but typically includes a fever, coughing, sneezing, muscle or head-aches, and runny noses. The disease may at first appear similar to the common cold, but symptoms of the flu are usually more severe and last longer. Recovery in healthy adults usually takes a week or two, but young children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems can potentially face longer illnesses, and may even develop secondary infections, like pneumonia, which have the potential to be life-threatening.
In Australia, an annual vaccination is typically available from your GP or clinic. This vaccine is tailored to the most common strains of the flu for that year. However, as the virus evolves so rapidly, a vaccination the previous year may not provide any protection to this year’s variation. If detected early, anti-viral medication can be effective in fighting the disease, but typically the only treatment available is bed-rest, drinking lots of liquids and taking paracetamol based medication to combat the symptoms. However, children and teenagers should avoid taking aspirin, particularly if they are feverous, as this can lead to dangerous complications.
Can you avoid getting the flu?
There’s no way to guarantee that you won’t get sick, but there are a number of things you can do to reduce your chances of getting influenza:
From chairs and tables to shopping trolleys, telephones, pens and remote controls, it’s amazing how many and varied surfaces we touch every day. And one of the two main ways in which influenza is spread is via contaminated surfaces! According to the Department of Health and Ageing, flu viruses can survive on some hard surfaces for up to two days so regular handwashing as well as trying not to touch your mouth or nose are important preventative measures.
It’s not always possible, of course, but being in large crowds increases your chance of contracting the flu, as the second main way in which the virus is spread is via cough and sneeze droplets.
Having an annual vaccination is the single most effective way to protect yourself against influenza infection and this year the government-funded flu vaccine for at-risk groups is available from April. Annual vaccination is necessary as the vaccination is updated each year to combat whichever strain of influenza is currently most prevalent.
The flu vaccine is recommended for everyone from six months of age, but is available free under the Immunise Australia Program for people who face a high risk from influenza and its complications. These are:
- People aged 65 years and over
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait people aged six months to less than five years
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are aged 15 years and over
- Pregnant women
- People aged six months and over with medical conditions such as severe asthma, lung or heart disease, low immunity or diabetes that can lead to complications from influenza.
In April 2016, the federal government announced that the new four-strain flu vaccine, protecting against the nasty Brisbane virus, was being made available for at-risk Australians for free from April, with $31.3 million made available for up to 4.48 million free doses of the new flu booster.
Minister for Health Sussan Ley said the Turnbull Government had moved quickly to upgrade Australia’s flu vaccine stocks from three strains to four, after the arrival of the Brisbane flu strain last year led to 2015 being recorded as the worst flu season in years.
“Last year we saw the arrival of some nasty strains of flu, like Brisbane, that led to nearly one-in-five recorded influenza cases ending up in hospital, which is why we’ve acted decisively to boost the national booster in 2016,” Ms Ley said.
“While many of us view the flu as nothing more than an annual inconvenience, some recent strains have seen serious complications in normally healthy people and it’s important for the health, safety and productivity of not only yourself, but the nation, you get the flu shot before the flu gets you.”
To receive your influenza vaccination, visit your local doctor or immunisation provider. It is important to note that while the vaccine is free, a consultation fee may apply.