Friday, February 26, 2021

Influenza: a jab in time can save money and heartache

A geriatrician strongly advises families to ensure their older members get vaccinated against flu, especially in the Covid-19 pandemic.

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The nation is reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic and preoccupied with how to stay safe from the virus, but now is a good time to remember another viral respiratory illness which never quite goes away: the flu.

Covid-19 and influenza are both contagious respiratory illnesses that attack the respiratory system: the nose, throat and lungs.

Although the symptoms can look similar, the two illnesses are caused by different viruses.

A lot of people make the mistake of thinking the flu is just a strong cold, but it is not.

The deadliest epidemic of all time began circling the globe in late 1918. By spring of the next year, 100 million people were dead – more than the infamous medieval Black Death killed in a century.

The race to develop a vaccine against the terrifying “new” illness influenza was as frantic then as the current race for vaccines against the coronavirus has been, and took much longer to succeed.

A lot of people make the mistake of thinking the flu is just a strong cold, but it is not.

But by 1955 an effective vaccine had been developed in the US, and within a few years vaccinations reduced the flu to a recurring nuisance rather than a devastating plague.

These days, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), 250,000 to 650,000 annual deaths worldwide are attributed to complications from influenza, such as pneumonia.

It is most often transmitted in tiny droplets expelled when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks.

Southeast Asia, where flu can be contracted at any time of the year, ranks third in the world for flu mortality.

While it may have been reduced to a painful nuisance for most, it is still potentially deadly for some.

Symptoms and effects can be mild to severe across all age groups but children under five and adults over 65 are the highest-risk groups.

Dr Rizah Mazzuin Razali, a geriatrician from Kuala Lumpur Hospital, tells MalaysiaNow the risk of mortality is highest of all for elderly people with comorbidities common to that age group, such as heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes.

Although flu vaccines have been around for decades, new versions are developed twice a year as the influenza virus rapidly changes.

Southeast Asia, where flu can be contracted at any time of the year, ranks third in the world for flu mortality.

While their effectiveness varies from year to year, most provide modest to high protection against influenza.

WHO and healthcare professionals all around the world recommend getting the jab, especially for the elderly.

Rizah never tires of telling people how important it is for them to care for older family members by getting them vaccinated against flu without waiting for symptoms to show.

Unlike young people, the elderly generally do not exhibit typical symptoms of influenza, she says. “By the time they actually become symptomatic, it is probably already quite far into the illness and they can run into life-threatening complications.”

Rizah, who is also a member of the Malaysian Influenza Working Group, always assures her patients and their families that flu vaccines are safe and give good protection.

“Patients who are vaccinated yearly have good outcomes,” she says, adding that they rarely experience any side effects.

Being vaccinated for flu also reduces the numbers of elderly people hospitalised with their comorbidities.

“Many older people are hospitalised quite frequently due to their chronic illnesses, and we can reduce their risk of hospitalisation due to lung infections,” says Rizah.

The 2021 budget provides tax exemption for those who purchase the flu vaccine.

WHO and healthcare professionals all around the world recommend getting the jab, especially for the elderly.

Private hospitals and some general practitioners are offering vaccinations.

Rizah admits the cost of purchasing a flu vaccine may not be cheap but insists it is a good investment as treatment for influenza will definitely cost more.

“Caring for the elderly is never cheap. Hospitalisation can cost from about RM1,000 to RM2,000 per day and an average stay for someone frail is 10 to 14 days,” she tells MalaysiaNow.

The Spanish flu, Russian flu, H1N1 have all claimed millions of lives over the years.

The flu is not just a heavy cold.

And now, Rizah tells MalaysiaNow that Covid-19 and influenza infections can happen together, and the elderly are particularly vulnerable against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic.

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