The influenza virus is constantly changing so you need to get a flu shot every year to be protected against the most common strains. People like doctors, nurses, day-care staff and nursing home staff, who are in contact with those in the at-risk groups, should also be vaccinated to stop the spread of the virus.
No one enjoys being laid low with the flu, but for some people it can lead to far more serious consequences than a few miserable days in bed. In an average year it’s estimated that 1500 Australians die and 20,000 to 40,000 are hospitalised as a result of the flu.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has 100 national influenza centres worldwide and four collaborating centres (including one in Melbourne), which analyse viruses from around the world. WHO convenes two meetings each year, in February and September, to review the findings of the centres and recommend which vaccine formulations should be used in the northern and southern hemispheres respectively.
- The vaccines currently used in most parts of the world are taken from an influenza virus that has been grown in embryonic hens' eggs, highly purified and then killed.
- The vaccine also contains salt water and trace amounts of an antibiotic.
- A preservative known as Thiomersol, which contains mercury and which was widely used in the past, has now been removed from many vaccines available on the market in Australia. If you are at all concerned about this, check with your GP.
The vaccine is injected into the shoulder, or the thigh for children between six and 12 months. As the influenza virus components in the vaccine have been killed, you won’t get the flu as a result of having a flu shot, but some people experience some mild flu-like symptoms for a day or so afterwards.
Who should be vaccinated?
Anyone who wants to avoid getting the flu should get a flu shot, but it’s especially recommended for:
- All adults aged 65 and over.
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders aged 50 and over, because of their greatly increased risk of premature death from respiratory disease.
- People older than six months who have diabetes, cancer, asthma, chronic respiratory disorders or chronic heart, kidney or metabolic disorders.
- People with a suppressed immune system due to infections such as HIV, or patients on immune-suppressing drugs for diseases like rheumatoid arthritis or following an organ transplant.
- Public hospital outpatients and inpatients who are considered to be at high risk for complications of influenza.
- Residents of nursing homes, hostels and other chronic-care facilities.
- Children with cyanotic congenital heart disease.
- Healthcare workers.
- Family members caring for elderly people and/or people with chronic health conditions listed above.
- Children on long-term aspirin therapy.
- Pregnant women who will be in their second or third trimester of pregnancy between June and October, as they’re likely to suffer more severe infections. The vaccine is considered safe for pregnant women and also provides protection for newborn babies during their first vulnerable months of life.
You shouldn’t get a flu shot if:
- You have a severe allergy to eggs, because the virus used in the vaccine is grown in hens’ eggs.
- You’re already ill with a fever — wait until your symptoms subside before being vaccinated.
- If you’ve previously suffered from Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS) you should discuss vaccination with your doctor. In the 1990s studies found an association between the vaccine and GBS in the northern hemisphere, at a rate of roughly one to two cases of GBS per million vaccinated.
- Babies under six months of age shouldn’t be given a flu vaccine.
- In healthy people, the flu vaccine provides around 70%–90% protection against infection for about one year, but it won’t prevent you from catching a common cold.
- Research has shown that people aged over 65 benefit greatly from flu vaccination. People in this age group are the most likely to suffer complications from flu, such as pneumonia, worsening of pre-existing conditions or even death.
- A WHO study found that flu vaccination can reduce hospitalisation by about 50% among nursing home residents and reduce the risk of pneumonia by about 60%.
- For elderly people not living in nursing homes, vaccination can reduce overall mortality by 39%–75% during flu season.
In 2004, four out of five Australians aged over 65 were vaccinated against flu. An even greater benefit can be achieved when people 65 and over combine their influenza vaccine with the pneumococcal vaccine, which protects against pneumonia, otitis media, pneumonic meningitis and septicaemia.
How much does it cost?
- The vaccine is provided free for people aged 65 or older, and to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders aged 50 or older, or 15–49 for those with a chronic illness.
- If you’re not eligible for a concession, the vaccine costs around $20, depending on your pharmacy.
- If you’re entitled to a concession, or you’ve already reached your PBS safety net limit of $1059, the vaccine costs $4.90.
The Live Attenuated Influenza Vaccine (LAIV) is a relatively new vaccine that has been introduced in some countries, including the USA and Russia. It contains living influenza virus particles that have been weakened so they won’t cause the flu, rather than the killed viruses used in other vaccines. It’s administered by a nasal spray rather than a needle. It has proven to be successful, but in the US it’s only recommended for healthy people aged between five and 49 because of limited safety data. However, this vaccine won’t be available in Australia for at least two or three years.