Flu season is coming – help protect your family

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The seasonal flu vaccination programme for 2017/18 is getting under way, so the Public Health Agency (PHA) is urging people to ‘Stay Well This Winter’ by ensuring that all eligible family members get the free flu vaccine when offered it.

The vaccine changes each year to cover the strains which are likely to be prevalent over the course of the flu season, so it is important to get immunised annually.

Everyone who is eligible to be vaccinated against flu should see it as a positive step in protecting their health and the health of others around them. Northern Ireland rolled out the childhood vaccination programme in 2013 and has consistently had good vaccine uptake. We experienced less severe activity last year compared with England, which is likely to be as a result of our comprehensive childhood programme.

Dr Lucy Jessop, Consultant, Health Protection, PHA

The signs from Australia’s winter, which is drawing to an end, show that flu prevalence has been much higher than in previous years, and global circulation means we could see the same here, especially if flu vaccine uptake rates are not high enough.

The flu virus spreads easily and quickly, infecting both adults and children alike. This can lead to days spent in bed rather than being at work or school, causing considerable inconvenience for the whole family, not to mention putting more vulnerable family members at risk.

Dr Lucy Jessop, Consultant in Health Protection at the PHA, explains the importance of the flu vaccine: “Everyone who is eligible to be vaccinated against flu should see it as a positive step in protecting their health and the health of others around them.

“Northern Ireland rolled out the childhood vaccination programme in 2013 and has consistently had good vaccine uptake. We experienced less severe activity last year compared with England, which is likely to be as a result of our comprehensive childhood programme.

“With high levels of flu activity in Australia this winter and the potential for similar here, it is more important than ever that everyone who is eligible gets vaccinated.

“We are fortunate to have a more comprehensive flu vaccination programme than Australia or England, but the benefits may only be realised if a high proportion of the groups who can get the vaccine actually take up the offer.”

Pre-school children in Northern Ireland aged two years and over are eligible to receive the free flu vaccine through their GP. Meanwhile, children in primaries one to seven will be offered the vaccine in school. In addition, people over 65, ‘at risk’ children and adults, and pregnant women, can receive the flu jab at their doctor’s surgery.

The flu vaccine does not give you the flu. It is offered as the best protection for people over 65 and ‘at risk’ groups because if they get flu, they are more likely to have severe illness and/or develop complications such as pneumonia, which can be life-threatening.

Pregnant women are also more likely to have serious illness if they catch flu, which is why they will be invited by their GP at all stages of pregnancy, to help protect them and their unborn baby.

The flu virus spreads through the air when people cough and sneeze without covering their nose and mouth, and because young children don’t always cover their noses or mouths when coughing or sneezing, the virus can spread very quickly among them.

Dr Jessop continued: “Because the virus spreads easily, pre-school and primary school children are being offered the vaccine, giving them the best protection and also helping to protect more vulnerable members of their families too. We would ask parents not to forget to sign and send back the consent form to school for your primary school children, and to take up the GP’s invitation for pre-school vaccination, or they may miss out.”

Most children receive the vaccine via a quick and painless nasal spray. The nasal vaccine has been shown to provide even greater protection for children than the flu injection. There are a few children who cannot receive the nasal spray and they will be offered the injection instead.

Dr Jessop added: “Traditionally uptake rates for flu vaccination are high in Northern Ireland, which is a result of the hard work and dedication from health and social care staff, and the excellent response from patients and parents, taking their GP’s advice when they or their kids need the vaccine.

“However, we mustn’t become complacent – we need to maintain high rates of uptake every year to maximise protection for our community. It is important that everyone who is eligible for vaccination – whether they are two or 102 – takes up the offer.”

Some GPs may not invite all of their registered patients who are eligible for vaccination directly. If you, or someone in your care, is eligible to be vaccinated but does not receive an invitation, contact your GP to find out more about their flu vaccination clinics.

As it takes approximately two weeks following vaccination to develop maximum protection against flu, it is important to get vaccinated early. Flu vaccination clinics are just getting started and everyone should aim to have the vaccine by early December. If you wait until flu starts circulating, it may be too late for the vaccine to protect you, so get the flu vaccine and stay well this winter.

The flu vaccination programme is part of the wider ‘Stay Well this Winter’ programme operated by the Public Health Agency and the Health and Social Care Board which enables people to take simple steps during the colder months to look after their health.

For further information on the flu vaccine see www.pha.site/fluleaflets
For further information on how to help yourself stay well this winter visit www.nidirect.gov.uk/stay-well