No one enjoys being bedbound with the flu, but for some people the symptoms can be far worse than a few miserable days in the reclined position. 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 influenza virus is constantly changing, so the flu vaccine changes every year to keep up with the most common strains.

  • Getting an annual flu shot is the single most important and effective measure in preventing the illness.
  • It's recommended that you get your flu shot in March or April.
  • The protection develops two weeks after getting the injection and lasts up to a year.

The vaccine – what's in it and how it's made

  • 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.
  • The preservative thiomersol, which contains a form of mercury and which was widely used in the past, has now been removed from many vaccines available on the market in Australia. If you're 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.

Will I get sick?

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 get a flu vaccination?

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, care hostels and other chronic-care facilities
  • children with cyanotic congenital heart disease
  • people such as doctors, nurses, daycare staff and nursing home staff who are in contact with at-risk groups
  • family members caring for elderly people and/or people with chronic health conditions listed above
  • children on long-term aspirin therapy
  • pregnant women who'll 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 vulnerable first few months of life.

Who shouldn't get a flu vaccination?

  • People with a severe allergy to eggs, because the virus used in the vaccine is grown in hens' eggs.
  • People already ill with a fever — wait until your symptoms subside before being vaccinated.
  • People who have previously suffered from Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS). 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. If you've suffered from GBS you should discuss vaccination with your doctor.
  • Babies under six months of age.
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