Seasonal flu, or influenza, is a commonly used term around the world. When we say seasonal flu, it would generally be more accurate in Western countries such as the US and Europe, i.e. those that have a temperate climate.
Influenza activity in those parts of the world usually peak during the winter months. Due to the intensity of the annual flu season, the US Centres for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) says there is an average estimate of 23,600 deaths each year in the country caused by complications resulting from the disease.
When it comes to a tropical country like Malaysia, where the weather is ever-changing, we are more prone to bouts of rain.
Even with a defined monsoon season, it can generally rain at any time of the year here, making it conducive for diseases like influenza, or even, the common cold, to spread throughout the year.
So, there truly is no time like the present to take extra precautions to safeguard one’s health.
People often say they have the flu when they may have caught a cold. But catching the flu is not the same as getting a cold, as they are caused by different viruses.
One example of an influenza virus is H1N1. The H1N1 influenza virus in 2009 caused a worldwide epidemic, with Malaysia among the countries impacted.
The flu strain also evolves and has the potential to change every year. This is why a flu jab or vaccine is recommended each year by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Asides from being two different diseases, the degree of suffering is not the same. One can generally get over a cold within a few days, but it is not as easy with the flu.
While not every person will have a dire reaction to the flu, it does not discriminate against age or status. Some who catch it will experience milder symptoms, but others may fare worse.
People who are at higher risk must be extra careful. Children, pregnant women, the elderly, diabetics and those with heart disease happen to fall into the high-risk groups.
It is important that one does not take influenza lightly as it can lead to serious complications, especially for those in the high-risk groups.
One of the dangers of the flu is that a person can contract it by just standing three feet away from one who is infected. All it takes is a sneeze or a cough.
The flu virus is then transmitted via droplets, which generally do not remain in air, travelling only a short distance of one meter or less. Droplets that land on a table or other hard surfaces can still carry the virus and are contagious for two to eight hours, according to the CDC.
A cold and flu share similar symptoms, particularly at the onset, but unlike the flu, a cold does not have the capability to take a life. People can take preventive measures like maintaining proper hygiene etiquette, being extra cautious when in the high-risk category, getting proper rest and eating right.
But one of the simplest and most effective ways to protect oneself is by getting the flu jab or influenza vaccination.
Making vaccination a choice
Before you say “I am not a child” or “I am not travelling to a country where I’ll be more prone to infectious diseases”, one does not need to fall into either category to be vaccinated.
In fact, in some parts of the world, adults opt for annual vaccination as a precautionary measure to avoid catching the flu.
The flu vaccine is needed every year as the protection offered only lasts for a year. This is not because the vaccine fails to protect you after one year, but because the flu virus can mutate every year.
For this reason, the WHO predicts the strain mutation each year, enabling vaccine manufacturers to then produce vaccines solely for that year’s virus strains.
Today, there are trivalent and quadrivalent vaccines, depending on whether they protect against three or four strains of the flu respectively. Obviously, the more strains one is protected against, the better.
Safeguarding one’s health with a flu jab can also reduce the impact of disease on communities.
Just imagine individuals not needing to take as many days of medical leave or companies not having to bear the rising cost of employees being absent from work due to illness. Or dealing with the increasing cost of hospitalisation bills from influenza-related complications, especially for the high-risk groups.
The burden of illness can be significant on society as a whole.
So, if one wonders whether adults should be vaccinated, my immediate response would be “Why not?”.
And when an adult falls into the high-risk group, vaccination becomes even more important, at times being the difference between life and death.
Datuk Dr Christopher Lee is a senior consultant physician of infectious diseases.