This year’s flu season sprang early – and with force

Published at Jun 21, 2017, in Features

Contrary to the traditional idea that a rock-solid work ethic means a willingness to work through all manner of maladies, showing up to the office when you’re unwell (and potentially contagious) isn’t so much a play for conscientious productivity as it is a gateway to delayed recovery and further infection.

A 2016 report prepared for Pathology Awareness Australia (PAA) by the Centre for International Economics which looks at improving the use of health resources quantifies the cost to the Australian economy associated with “presenteeism” at $34.1 billion per annum. This is equivalent to a productivity loss of 2.6% and a gross domestic product loss of 2.7%.

The good news? This year, for the first time, community pharmacies across Australia are able to administer a flu shot, in addition to medical centres and GPs. You can use the Vaccine Finder to locate a service near you.

The vaccine is recommended for anyone over six months of age, and is free under the National Immunisation Program for people perceived to be at higher risk from influenza and its complications.

Many employers also adopt a workplace flu vaccination program, providing a number of key benefits that work on a dual level — including the general health of businesses themselves.

It’s no secret workplaces are rife with sick leave and unplanned absences during flu season. But on the flipside, unwell employees who drag themselves to work — the aforementioned “presenteeism” (as opposed to absenteeism) — cost businesses through lost productivity, at the same time running the risk of infecting their colleagues.

But it’s just the flu, right?

With June marking not just the cautioning road-bump of mid-year (and the approach of a new financial year), but also the onslaught of another bitterly cold winter, all signs point to flu season.

This year, in Australia, flu season has actually sprung early, and with more force than it did last year. You can tell the season is upon is when public transport commutes start to resound with choruses of coughing and sneezing, and offices teem with employees who probably should be getting bedrest at home instead.

Health Department figures show that so far this year, almost 7,000 influenza cases have already been diagnosed in Australia — an increase of about 1,000 since the same period in 2016.

Each year, between 5% and 20% of the Australian population are likely to be infected with the influenza virus – and it’s estimated to cause between 1500 and 3,500 deaths, 18,000 hospitalisations, and 300,000 GP consultations per year in Australia.

The majority of cases aren’t fatal, but it can be a serious illness for certain population groups including the elderly, young children, pregnant women, or those with compromised immunity.

The flu versus the common cold

While the word “flu” tends to be used to refer to any generic combination of cold-like symptoms (or gastrointestinal illness, as with “stomach flu”), it’s important to note that there’s actually a marked difference between the common cold and the influenza virus.

Influenza is a highly contagious illness caused by a group of viruses that infect the respiratory tract. Unlike a cold, symptoms such as fever, sore throat and muscle aches develop suddenly with flu and last about a week. Generally, it produces a more severe illness than most other common viral respiratory infections. In some cases, severe illness and complications such as pneumonia and bronchitis can develop, and it can also worsen some pre-existing medical conditions.

Prevention is better than cure

The most effective form of prevention from influenza is still a yearly jab. While vaccine effectiveness can vary, in Australian studies, it’s estimated that the risk of influenza is reduced by about 40-50% in people who receive the vaccine.

The gamut of strains used in seasonal influenza vaccines can vary from year to year, depending on which viruses research indicates will be most common during the upcoming season. For instance, one of the four strains in the 2017 vaccine is called A/H3N2/Hong Kong/4801/2014, which refers to an influenza A type, a H3N2 subtype (flu viruses are defined and named by proteins on their surface, haemagglutinin – H, and neuraminidase – N), and a strain first isolated in Hong Kong in 2014.

Essentially, the vaccine causes antibodies to develop in the body about two weeks after vaccination. These antibodies provide protection against infection with the viruses that are in the vaccine.

Health professionals strongly recommend getting a new flu vaccine every year for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the body’s immune response from vaccination declines over time, so an annual vaccine is needed for maximum protection. Secondly, because influenza viruses are constantly in flux, the vaccine formulation is reviewed each year and updated accordingly to keep up with ever-changing flu viruses.

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