October marks the beginning of autumn and the official start of the seasonal flu vaccination programme for 2014/2015. The Public Health Agency (PHA) is urging all people whose health could be seriously affected by flu to get the free flu vaccine.
GPs across Northern Ireland will be inviting people over 65, pregnant women, and ‘at risk’ children and adults to have the flu vaccine, as flu can be particularly serious for these groups.
Influenza or ‘seasonal flu’ is a respiratory illness associated with infection by the influenza virus. Seasonal flu is made up of different strains of the virus. H1N1, commonly known as ‘swine flu’, is now classed as a strain of seasonal flu and last year H1N1 was circulating in Northern Ireland, so it would therefore not be unusual for it to be circulating again this year. The flu vaccine helps protect against several strains of seasonal flu including H1N1.
Dr Richard Smithson, Consultant in Health Protection at the PHA, explains the importance of the flu vaccine for ‘at risk’ groups: “For people in ‘at risk’ groups, flu can cause serious illness and result in a stay in hospital, or even death. Even if you currently feel fit and healthy, you may be at increased risk of flu and should receive the free vaccine. It is also important to remember that the strains of flu virus can vary from year to year, which is why you need to get the vaccination every year, so even if you received the vaccine in spring this year, you still need to get the vaccination for the 2014/15 flu season.
“Everyone who receives an invitation to be vaccinated against flu should see it as a positive step in helping to protect their health and the health of others around them.
“The flu vaccine does not give you the flu. It is offered as the best protection for ‘at risk’ groups because if they get flu, they are more likely to have severe illness and/or develop complications such as pneumonia, which can be life-threatening.
“Pregnant women are more likely to have serious illness if they catch flu, which is why they will be invited by their GP at all stages of pregnancy, to help protect them and their unborn baby. Health and Social Care staff are also urged to get vaccinated, to help protect themselves, their families and those they care for.
“Traditionally uptake rates for flu vaccination are very high in Northern Ireland which is a result of the hard work and dedication from all involved in the health and social care, and the excellent response from patients, taking their GP’s advice that they need the vaccine.
“This year as part of the childhood flu programme, healthy preschool children aged two years and over and primary school children will also be offered the flu vaccine. Most will receive it via the new quick and painless nasal spray called Fluenz Tetra®. Primary school children will get the vaccination at school, while preschool children will receive it through their local GP surgery.
“As it takes approximately two weeks following vaccination to reach maximum protection against flu, it is important to get vaccinated by early December. Flu vaccination clinics have already started and will continue until early December. If you wait until flu starts circulating, it may be too late for the vaccine to offer you protection.