Better get that flu vaccination right now!

Persons aged 65 years and older and residents of senior-allocated flats, old-age homes, chronic care, and rehabilitation institutions should make it a matter of course to get the flu vaccination, especially in these times.

Could the flu vaccine combat the coronavirus? That’s the question US President Donald Trump recently asked during a White house roundtable discussion between his coronavirus task force and pharmaceutical company executives.

His question was answered with a direct “no” from an executive. The flu vaccine is designed to prevent infections with influenza viruses, which are very different than coronaviruses. But the answer is slightly more complicated than that: The flu vaccine won’t prevent you from getting a coronavirus, but it can help officials better respond to the outbreak of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new virus.

“I do think immunising people against influenza has a very important indirect effect,” said Dr Albert Ko, a professor and department chair at the Yale School of Public Health.

Relieve pressure in hospitals

First, health care workers are already burdened by flu cases so getting a flu shot, reduces the number of flu patients, thereby helping to “relieve pressures” in hospitals also treating patients with COVID-19, he said. Also, you don’t want to end up with both normal seasonal flu and COVID-19 at the same time!

But there’s another reason a flu shot could improve the country’s response to the new outbreak: the US is lagging other countries in testing for COVID-19. And that’s unlikely to improve in the near term. Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the administration’s response to the coronavirus, has announced that the US does not have enough test kits to meet demand.

How does that relate to the flu? If people get their flu shots, fewer people come down with the flu and come into clinics with nonspecific symptoms such as fever and cough, which overlap with symptoms of COVID-19.

Having fewer flu patients will make it easier to find the patients with COVID-19, he said.

More efficient in detecting COVID-19

Higher vaccination rates would “make us much more efficient in detecting coronavirus,” cases, Ko told Live Science. Finding COVID-19 cases is still akin to picking a “needle out of a haystack,” but reducing flu cases can “decrease the haystack,” he added.

On the bright side, it is “incredibly rare,” to catch both the flu and COVID-19 at once, said Dr Eric Cioe Peña, director of Global Health, Northwell Health in New York and an emergency room physician. “Usually if they have one, they don’t have the other.”

It’s April, which means it’s that time of the year again: flu vaccination time! So says Doctor Leslie Kernisan in Better Health While Aging.

“Back when I worked in a primary care clinic, this is when we made a big push to offer the seasonal flu shot to all of our patients. (And we got ourselves immunised, as well.)

People with the flu are still coming into the hospital and there’s always a chance there could be two spikes of the flu, Peña told Live Science.

“Many older adults though are sceptical of the need to get a yearly vaccination against influenza. They aren’t sure it will help. Or they think that the vaccination will give them a mild case of the flu. Or they just don’t like needles,” says Kernisan.

Bolstering your immune system

Since we are social creatures and live in communities, we all have a good chance of being exposed to the influenza virus at some point. However, having been practising social discipline for some time now, we’re quite adept at keeping a distance from a possible infected person! Whether we get sick from this exposure, and how sick we get, depends on how well our immune system can fight off the influenza virus.

Ways to bolster your immune system are:

Be vaccinated against seasonal influenza. If the vaccine is a good match with circulating viruses and you have a good antibody response, this is probably the best way to prepare your immune system to beat influenza.

Take good care of your health and body. This includes addressing healthy lifestyle basics such as not smoking, getting adequate sleep, avoiding chronic stress, and more. For a good review of what’s known about strengthening the immune system, see: How to boost your immune system (Harvard Health Review).

Is the flu vaccine effective to older adults?

“You may have heard people say that the flu shot doesn’t work in older people. This is not entirely correct,” says Kernisan.

“Now, it’s true that flu vaccine is usually less effective in older adults because aging immune systems tend to not respond as vigorously to the vaccine. In other words, older adults tend to create fewer antibodies in response to vaccination. So, if they are later exposed to flu virus, they have a higher chance of falling ill, compared to younger adults.

“But ‘less effective’ doesn’t mean ‘not at all effective.’ For the 2017-2018 flu season, the CDC estimates that vaccination prevented about 700,000 influenza cases and 65,000 hospitalisations, for adults aged 65 and older.”

Now, what if your older parent won’t, or can’t, get a flu shot?

Some older adults just don’t want to get it. Here are some things you can try:

  • Ask them to clarify what their concerns are. It’s important to start by listening, in order to understand what an older person believes about the flu and the flu shot.
  • Provide information to dispel myths and misunderstandings. Sometimes all people need is a little of the right kind of information.
  • Point out that it can benefit an older person’s family members and neighbours. Getting a flu shot can reduce the risk that we pass the flu on to another person. People are sometimes more willing to take action to protect others than to protect their own health.
  • Offer to go together to get your flu shots. Sometimes it helps to make it a family outing.
  • There are also some older adults for whom it’s hard to get a flu shot, such as people who are homebound or have very limited transportation options. If this is your situation, the main thing to do is encourage flu shots for family and others coming to the house. For older adults who don’t get out much, their main source of exposure to influenza will be from those who come to them. (Presuming, of course, that the lockdown is lifted at this stage!)

“Above all, don’t panic if your older loved one can’t or won’t get a flu shot.

“Although I’ve just written a long article encouraging flu vaccination for older adults, the truth is this: most years, the chance of getting very sick or dying from influenza are small.

“Being vaccinated certainly helps make this chance smaller. But not every older person is interested in doing everything possible to reduce the danger of illness. Personally, I think it’s worth getting vaccinated because there’s a small chance that you’ll avoid the misery of having influenza.  And, there’s maybe an even better chance that you’ll help reduce the spread of influenza to people around you.”

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