Beat the flu: myth busting the flu vaccine

Keep yourself and others safer with an influenza vaccine
Wednesday, March 1 2023

Myths and misunderstandings about the influenza vaccine leave many people vulnerable to seasonal flu each year. Get the facts, and get a head start to protect your family, as well as vulnerable members of the community, by getting the flu shot well before the influenza season.

“No one enjoys the inconvenience and symptoms of having flu, which commonly include body aches, fever and coughing, but the flu can cause severe illness for people who are at greater risk including the elderly and those with compromised immune systems,” says Dr Cathelijn Zeijlemaker, a family physician and director of Netcare’s Primary Care division.

Common myths and misunderstandings around the influenza vaccine should not deter people from protecting themselves and others. “The World Health Organization estimates that flu causes severe illness for between 3 and 4 million people globally each year and hundreds of thousands of deaths, and supports annual flu vaccines as the most effective way to prevent this disease burden,” she says.

“Some people mistakenly think the flu vaccine doesn't work because they have known people who got the vaccine and got the flu anyway. People who get sick after getting the flu vaccine usually do not actually have the flu, but a cold caused by an unrelated virus that is not included in the flu vaccine. This does not mean the vaccine does not work. Flu symptoms for those who still get ill, are likely to be milder and last for a shorter time compared with people who are not vaccinated.”

Most of the time, the influenza vaccine has no side effects. “When side effects are experienced, there may be redness, mild swelling and pain over the injection site, or the person may have a mild fever, mild rash, headache or body aches,” Dr Zeijlemaker says.

Serious side effects, such as a severe allergic reaction, are rare. The amount of egg in the flu vaccine is too small to cause an allergic reaction, and it is therefore recommended that even individuals who are allergic to eggs have routine flu vaccines each year.

“Many careful studies have been conducted, and scientists have not found a link between vaccines and autism. However, the risk of your child or a loved one becoming seriously ill from influenza is unfortunately a very real concern,” she says.

There are different forms of flu caused by viruses, including the commonly known H1N1 also called ‘swine flu’, and the bird flu also known as ‘avian flu’. According to the World Health Organization’s Global Influenza Programme, in 2021/2022 South Africa experienced its worst flu outbreak since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Every year the influenza virus ‘mutates’, or changes, therefore you will need a new vaccine every year to remain protected. The strains of flu included in each year’s vaccine is decided according to scientific predictions, and although it is more effective in some years than others, the flu shot helps us avoid getting sick with flu in most cases, and also helps to prevent more serious illness and outbreaks of the flu,” Dr Zeijlemaker says.

“It is unpredictable when a flu outbreak will start and so it is worthwhile to have an annual influenza vaccine early, well before winter. Most years, the flu vaccine becomes available in mid-March, so keep in touch with your local Netcare Medicross for availability. Remember, it generally takes two weeks for the vaccine to become effective, because it takes the body about two weeks to make antibodies, which destroy the virus when you are exposed to flu. It is therefore advisable to be vaccinated early,” she says.

“It is especially recommended that pregnant women, people over the age of 50, children with asthma, and people with chronic heart or lung conditions, HIV, diabetes or kidney disease are vaccinated against influenza, as they are often at higher risk.”

Visit your local Netcare Medicross Medical and Dental Centre for your family’s influenza vaccinations or consult a general practitioner about your personal risk factors for seasonal flu.

“Women who are planning a pregnancy, as well as those who are currently pregnant should take precautions, including vaccination, because flu symptoms can get worse quickly when you are pregnant and can be dangerous for woman and their baby,” Dr Zeijlemaker advises.

“Healthcare workers and people who care for or live with people who may be at higher risk should also be vaccinated to help prevent passing flu to people whose bodies may not be as well equipped to fight off infection,” she says.

“Together, we can make a difference to this year’s flu season. In addition to being vaccinated, washing your hands regularly, avoiding contact with people who are ill and staying at home when you are sick to prevent infecting others, can help to reduce this health burden for all.”

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