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Do you need to take the flu vaccination this winter?

Those living in warmer climes will know that colds and flu appear to have little to do with actually being cold. In winter – when temperatures in the UAE are usually pleasant – many people get hit by the flu bug.

“The influenza virus survives better in colder and drier climates, and therefore is able to infect more people, especially those who spend more time indoors with the windows sealed,” explains Dr Waleed Mohamed, a general practitioner at Healthpoint in Abu Dhabi.

“They are more likely to breathe the same air as someone who has the flu, and thus contract the virus.”

Flu symptoms include fever, muscle aches, headaches, fatigue, sore throat and sometimes vomiting and diarrhoea. It usually lasts up to a couple of weeks, but can be dangerous to people with a compromised immune system. Many countries invest in a flu vaccine to keep more vulnerable people safe. It usually becomes available in October when the flu virus starts circulating, and is given at public and private clinics.

The Health Authority – Abu Dhabi recommends everyone get the vaccine during the flu season, especially those at high risk of flu-related complications or those caring for people who are at high risk.

Flu can hit someone especially hard if a person’s immune system is already compromised by a chronic illness. Pregnant women are also at a greater risk of developing flu-related complications.

“Certain people are at higher risk of complications from the flu, so it’s especially important that they get vaccinated,” says Mohamed. “For example, if you have conditions like asthma, diabetes, heart or lung disease, a weak immune system, HIV or cancer, it’s important you get the flu shot.” This also applies to women who are pregnant, or anyone over 50, he adds.

While healthy people would not, in theory, need the flu shot because the flu itself is unlikely to do any permanent damage, more people being vaccinated means a lower chance of vulnerable people catching the virus and suffering complications.

Dr Lyssette Cardona, chief of infectious diseases at the Medical Subspecialties Institute at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, says people with diabetes need to be aware of the flu shot.

“Should someone with diabetes get the flu, they are also more prone to flu-related complications, such as pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus infections and ear infections. To safeguard themselves, it is important that alongside the vaccine, they take proper steps to control their diabetes and live healthy lifestyles.”

She also advises diabetics to stay up-to-date with the pneumococcal vaccine as part of their diabetes management plan.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States reports that between 2010 and 2012 the flu vaccine reduced children’s risk of flu-related admission into the paediatric intensive care unit by 74 per cent. It also says in 2016 people who were 50 years and over and who received the vaccine reduced their risk of going into hospital with flu by more than half.

The most common vaccine is the trivalent flu vaccine, which contains three strains of the influenza virus and can be given to almost anyone older than six months.

People with a severe egg allergy should make sure the doctor or nurse is aware of this before they receive the vaccine (which must be administered in a medical setting with someone qualified to deal with severe reactions). This is because the trivalent shot is made using virus grown in eggs and includes a small amount of egg protein, which could trigger a reaction.

There is a misconception that getting the flu shot will give a person flu. It will not. But it is possible to experience flu-like symptoms for a number of reasons: some people react to the vaccine and experience muscle aches or a fever, one could catch influenza in the two-week window before immunity develops, or there is a mismatch between the viruses that the vaccine is protecting against and the viruses circulating in flu season.

“Your body requires two weeks to learn how to the fight the illness, so the earlier you get the vaccine during the season, the sooner you’ll be protected,” says Mohamed.

Unlike some other vaccines, one shot is not enough. Flu viruses evolve quickly, so last year’s vaccine is unlikely to offer protection again this year, and this year’s won’t offer protection next year. The body’s antibodies also decline over time, so it is important to top up the immunity.

Eating well is one way of boosting the natural immunity that helps the body fight any illness.

Cardona says: “With many of us leading a fast-paced life, paying close attention to our daily diets can fall on our list of priorities, making us prone to having a weaker immune system. A balanced intake of vitamins and minerals can keep our immune system healthy.”

She says if it’s not possible to eat fresh foods, try frozen foods without added sugar or sodium. “They are packed at their peak ripeness, maintaining similar nutritional value as their fresh counterparts.”

Contact your doctor to find out more about this year’s flu vaccine.

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