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Key facts about flu and flu vaccination

Posted: 30.09.2019

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By Sammer Tang MCPara, Public Health Registrar, Swindon Borough Council and Public Health Lead, College of Paramedics; and Kirsty Morgan, Senior Quality Manager, East Midlands Ambulance Service. 

What is flu? 
For most healthy people, influenza is an unpleasant but self-limiting illness although it is far worse than the common cold. The common symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Aches and pains in joints and muscles 
  • Extreme tiredness.

However, it has the potential to cause serious disease that could lead to hospitalisation and accounts for over 8,000 deaths in the UK annually. 

How does flu spread? 
Influenza is a highly transmissible viral infection spread by respiratory droplets and direct contact with respiratory secretions. Up to 50% of people with confirmed influenza symptoms are sub-clinical but can still spread flu to others. 

In the UK most influenza activity occurs between December and March (although outbreaks can happen as early as October and as late as May). All frontline health and social care workers are offered the flu vaccine from September onwards to protect them, and their patients, against seasonal influenza. 

How the flu vaccine is made? 
The influenza viruses in the seasonal flu vaccine are selected each year based on surveillance data indicating which viruses are circulating and forecasts about which viruses are the most likely to circulate during the coming season. The quadrivalent vaccinations  both contain inactivated influenza viruses and cause antibodies to develop in the body about two weeks after vaccination without causing actual influenza infection. These antibodies provide protection against infection with the viruses (four strains of virus) that are in the vaccine. 

Why should I have a flu vaccine? 
Last year (2018-19), 65.5% of frontline ambulance clinicians in the NHS ambulance services in England were vaccinated against seasonal flu compared to 71.0% of healthcare workers with direct patient contact in NHS Acute Trusts. 

It is well known that frontline healthcare workers are more likely to be exposed to Influenza virus and it has been estimated that up to one in four healthcare workers will become infected with influenza during a mild influenza season, this is considerably higher than expected in the general population.

By protecting themselves with flu vaccine, health and social care workers reduce the risk of spreading flu to patients and of disruption to their care services, which is particularly important throughout winter, when pressures on frontline services may be severe. There is no such thing as natural immunity against the flu virus and staff are encouraged to have their vaccine annually to ensure they are protected. The flu vaccine also reduces the risk of healthcare workers transmitting flu to their families. 

People in the following groups are eligible for NHS flu vaccination programme and should be encouraged to be vaccinated by either their General Practitioner or local pharmacy:

  • all children aged two to ten (but not eleven years or older) on 31 August 2019
  • those in clinical risk groups and aged  between six months and under 65 years
  • pregnant women
  • those aged 65 years and over
  • those in long-stay residential care homes
  • carers
  • close contacts of immunocompromised individuals

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