October marks the beginning of autumn and the official start of the seasonal flu vaccination programme.
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 the over 65s, pregnant women, and children and adults with some serious medical conditions to have the flu vaccine as flu can be particularly serious for these groups.
For those 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 if you are in one of these groups and should receive the free vaccine.
It is also important to remember that the flu virus can differ every flu season, 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 2013/14 flu season.
Dr Richard Smithson, Consultant in Health Protection at the PHA, explains the importance of the flu vaccine for ‘at risk’ groups: “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.”
It is important to remember that the seasonal flu vaccine is needed every year as last year’s vaccine will not protect you this season.
Dr Smithson added: “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 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 new childhood flu programme, healthy children aged two and three and primary six children will also be vaccinated. Most will receive the vaccine via the new quick and painless nasal spray Fluenz®. The nasal vaccine has been shown to provide greater protection for children than the flu injection. For medical reasons a very small number of at-risk children will not be able to receive the nasal spray. They will be given the flu vaccine by injection instead. Primary six children will get the vaccination at school, while two and three year old children will receive it through their local GP surgery.
As it takes approximately two weeks following vaccination to develop protection against flu, it is important to get vaccinated early. Flu vaccine clinics have already started and everyone should aim to have the vaccine by mid-November. If you wait until flu starts circulating, it may be too late for the vaccine to help protect you.