In the modern world, influenza can spread more easily from one end of the world to the other, with certain individuals being more vulnerable than others to the disease.

It can lead to serious medical complications, particularly for high-risk groups, increasing morbidity and mortality.

Those impacted are mainly children below the age of five, pregnant women, those aged above 65, and those suffering from respiratory diseases like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), as well as chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease.

Travellers also fall into the high-risk category, including haj and umrah pilgrims.

In a bid to raise awareness on the impact of influenza, a media dialogue session was held to discuss the prevalence of the disease in the country, how influenza affects high-risk groups, and the preventive role played by vaccination.

It was presented by the Malaysian Society of Infectious Diseases and Chemotherapy (MSIDC) and supported by Sanofi Pasteur.

The panel comprised MSIDC president and consultant clinical microbiologist Professor Dr Zamberi Sekawi, consultant paediatrician and neonatologist Datuk Dr Musa Mohd Nordin, consultant geriatrician Prof Dr Tan Maw Pin and senior consultant respiratory physician Associate Prof Dr Pang Yong Kek.

During the panel discussion, Prof Zamberi said, “This disease is generally not taken seriously by Malaysians, particularly those in the high-risk groups. Yet, influenza can and has caused epidemics and pandemics in the past.

“Today, more people are travelling than ever, whether for business, leisure or on pilgrimages. Hence, it is important to protect oneself by getting vaccinated against the flu at least two weeks before travelling.”

He added: “Muslim pilgrims in particular should get the influenza vaccination. Respiratory tract infection is known to be the most commonly transmitted disease during haj pilgrimages.

“So, why take a chance with a disease that spreads easily in crowds, especially with millions of haj pilgrims gathering in the holy city each year?

“Vaccination will enable pilgrims to fulfil their pilgrimage with peace of mind where their health is concerned.”

Dr Musa emphasised the responsibility parents have to protect their families.

“Young children, as well as pregnant women, are particularly vulnerable to the influenza virus, and the resulting complications can be life-threatening.

“Millions of children fall ill from influenza yearly, with thousands needing to be hospitalised, and some worst-case scenarios resulting in death.

“There is also a significant chance of the disease spreading from one child to other family members.

“Vaccination can help prevent or limit such cases, thereby benefitting the entire family.

“For parents who are hesitant about vaccinating their children, my advice is to look at the significant advantages of the vaccine and consider its protective role.

“For instance, flu shots given during pregnancies have been shown to successfully protect not only the mother, but also the baby up until several months after birth.

“Ultimately, parents who are unsure must change their mindset if they want to safeguard their children’s health.”

Prof Tan highlighted the higher risk levels faced by older persons, many of whom also suffer from chronic illnesses.

“The human immune system weakens with age, and influenza is at its deadliest at the extremes of the age spectrum.

“Chronic diseases in older persons can also contribute significantly to influenza-associated mortality.

“They are more likely to contract serious secondary complications from the flu, which can exacerbate pre-existing non-communicable diseases.

“As such, an annual flu vaccination is recommended to protect them from the disease and ensure better quality of life.”

According to Assoc Prof Pang, “Patients with pre-existing chronic respiratory conditions are also highly susceptible to further complications upon contracting the flu.

“They may also develop secondary lower respiratory tract infections, including pneumonia and other acute respiratory diseases.

“For asthma patients, influenza can lead to further inflammation of the airways and lungs, trigger asthma attacks or cause asthma symptoms to worsen.

In the same vein, many COPD patients are usually smokers, and are more prone to respiratory infections.

“While the first recommendation would be to stop smoking, getting vaccinated against influenza should be a priority.”

MSIDC also took the opportunity to inaugurate the Malaysian Influenza Working Group (MIWG) at the event, which aims to address pertinent issues both locally, as well as internationally.

The group’s priorities span four key areas, namely, surveillance; policy and guidelines; advocacy and education; as well as research.

The core committee members of MIWG consist of experts from various influenza-related disciplines, including medical microbiology, paediatrics, respiratory medicine, infectious diseases, disease surveillance, occupational health and geriatric medicine, with Prof Zamberi as chairman.

He said, “Influenza is both a global and a local problem. This is why leading experts all over the world are striving to find ways to curb the disease and mitigate its effects.

“There are medical and scientific bodies that involve themselves in surveillance, research, training and education in hopes of developing effective policies, protocols and practices to prevent and control of influenza.

“Notable leaders in the field include the WHO (World Health Organization), the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and also specialised groups like the Asia Pacific Alliance for the Control of Influenza (APACI).

“In Malaysia, we are also very concerned about the impact of influenza and recognise the need to be part of the global initiative to combat the disease. MIWG will be part of the comprehensive communication and education network of APACI.

“We believe that through these four key areas, MIWG would be able to make an impact on influenza prevention and management through various activities.

“These include research collaborations, establishment of real-time surveillance data, development of policies and guidelines for high-risk groups, and also influenza awareness and education campaigns to encourage vaccine uptake.”

He concluded by saying, “Adults can make lifestyle choices that result in better health protection for themselves, their families, and as caregivers, by speaking to their doctors and learning more about vaccination.

“Each of us must take responsibility for our health. Vaccination reduces the impact of disease on society, especially those at high risk, and saves millions of lives each year.”