Annual flu vaccine ‘more important than ever’

By Sue Tiffin

It might not be the vaccine that has been on everyone’s mind this year, but the annual flu vaccine will be available in Haliburton County and across Ontario in October, and according to the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit quoting Immunize Canada, “it’s more important than ever to reduce the spread of flu.” 

“The best protection against influenza is the annual flu vaccine, so the health unit encourages everyone to get vaccinated this year,” said Marianne Rock, health unit manager of health protection.

Influenza is a serious respiratory illness caused by a virus,  according to the health unit website. “People of any age can get the flu, and illness usually lasts five to 10 days, sometimes longer in older adults and in people with chronic diseases,” reads the site. “Most people who get the flu are ill for only a few days. However, some people can become very ill, possibly developing complications and requiring hospitalization.”

Symptoms of influenza include fever, cough, runny or stuffy nose, sore throat, headache, muscle aches, extreme weakness and fatigue.

“The best way to prevent the flu is to be immunized every year,” reads the site.

“The flu shot is a safe and effective way to protect you and your family from becoming ill with the flu. The flu shot strengthens your immune system to build up antibodies against the virus. It can take up to two weeks for antibodies to build up after you get the flu shot.”

Health experts are urging the public to consider getting a flu shot this year to help combat the challenges on our health-care system dealing with both COVID-19 and flu season.  

“As we head into what could be a second wave of COVID-19 this winter, getting flu vaccine has added benefit and significance this year,” said Rock. “The more people who get flu vaccine, the better protected they will be from influenza. That can be extra critical at a time when many health-care resources are being deployed to respond to COVID-19. If fewer people have to go to the doctor or hospital for influenza this winter, that frees up needed resources in the fight against the pandemic.”

“Getting flu vaccine this winter will also reduce a potential double whammy of becoming infected with both influenza and COVID-19 at the same time,” she said.

It is important for residents to know that the flu shot does not offer protection against COVID-19.  

“The viruses that cause influenza and COVID-19 are very different and distinct,” said Rock. “That means the annual flu vaccine will just protect people from influenza, not COVID-19. Getting a flu shot is still important because influenza is a serious infectious disease in its own right.”

It’s still too early to determine how effective this year’s flu vaccine will be in reducing the risk of influenza, according to Rock.

“As you know, the World Health Organization determines the most likely flu virus strains that will be circulating in the upcoming flu season,” she said. “The vaccine is then manufactured to protect against these strains. When there is a good match between the flu vaccine and the circulating flu strains, people’s risk of getting sick from influenza is greatly reduced. Even if the match isn’t exact, getting the flu vaccine still offers a person more protection than if they did not get a shot.”

While some people who get the flu vaccine will still get sick from influenza, it is usually milder than if they had not been vaccinated.

Typically the flu shot is available at medical clinics including doctor offices, and also at pharmacies, the involvement of the latter Dr. Norm Bottum of the Haliburton Highlands Family Health Team said “has significantly improved patients’ access to the vaccine. There should be no excuse not to get it.” 

This year is the first that pharmacies can also offer a high-dose flu shot, available to those 65 years and older. 

“My message this year will be even stronger to encourage folks to receive a flu shot for the same reasons we want a COVID vaccine,” said Bottum. “To protect yourself against a potentially dangerous virus and to protect others around you, especially the vulnerable.”

Dr. Nell Thomas, also with family health team, noted that anyone over six months of age needs vaccination.

“Get your flu shot this year and urge others to do the same,” she said. “The more vaccinations you have, the greater your protection from the variety of influenza strains that present each year.”

“If 65 per cent of the population is vaccinated, that can reduce the burden of disease in a community significantly and make what could otherwise be an overwhelming situation actually manageable by our small team of health-care workers.”