Protect yourself against South Africa’s second leading cause of death

Get a flu vaccination to guard against the most virulent strains

As South Africans prepare for winter, the change in the seasons often corresponds with an increase in cases of influenza, commonly referred to as the flu. Flu can lay even the healthiest individuals low for up to two weeks and may result in dangerous complications, including pneumonia.

This month, Resolution Health Medical Scheme (Resolution Health) rolled out a SMS campaign to encourage members to protect themselves against these potentially dangerous illnesses by having flu vaccines.

“Resolution Health is committed to helping members to protect themselves from illness wherever possible, and paying attention to seasonal and emerging health trends forms an integral part of this,” says Principal Officer of Resolution Health, Mark Arnold.

Dr Jacques Snyman, Director of Product Development at Agility Africa, Resolution Health’s administrator, says that although flu is a common ailment at this time of the year, it can lead to secondary infections and some dangerous complications. This is demonstrated by the fact that flu and pneumonia were recorded as the second leading underlying natural cause of death in South Africa in the four most recent annual Mortality and Causes of Death in South Africa studies conducted by Statistics South Africa.

“For this reason, members whose benefit options provide for the vaccine were encouraged via SMS to have the flu vaccination. Members who were identified as being at particularly high risk of falling ill also received SMSes, alerting them that flu vaccine cover at approved providers has been unlocked to help protect them from the flu and its related complications during the winter months,” says Arnold.

Dr Snyman says that there is empirical evidence to support the value of flu vaccinations. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States confirms that the vaccine meaningfully reduces hospitalisation and death rates. It also reports that the vaccination is a cost-effective counter-measure to seasonal outbreaks of flu.”

“For most of us, contracting flu is an unpleasant experience from which we recover within a few days or at most a couple of weeks. However, children under the age of five, the elderly, HIV-positive individuals, diabetes and asthma sufferers, among others, may be at particularly high risk of developing serious flu complications such as pneumonia.”

“As borne out in the Statistics SA figures, influenza and pneumonia can be deadly and we therefore urge all South Africans to take precautions against spreading the virus and to consider having the flu vaccination,” says Arnold.

While the vaccine may not offer a complete safeguard from flu it does offer a good measure of protection. In addition, the vaccine may significantly reduce the severity of the symptoms and the risk of complications.

“The data of the scheme reveals that as much as a third to half of high-risk patients with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), who did not have the flu vaccine, end up in hospital. These hospitalisations are more often than not caused by minor infections, which then lead to the exacerbation of the underlying disease. The data furthermore shows that those who do have the flu vaccine administered have a substantially lower hospital admission rate,” asserts Arnold.

Dr Snyman points out that there is another important aspect to the vaccine: the more people who have the vaccine, the better the protection among the population against a general flu outbreak. In other words, we not only protect ourselves when we have the vaccination, we also protect others who may be more vulnerable to an outbreak of the virus, such as our children, the elderly and HIV-positive individuals. We may also protect our colleagues in the workplace.

“In a country where flu and pneumonia are recorded as a leading cause of death, individuals choosing to take the precaution of having a flu vaccination can help contribute to the collective health of their communities,” Dr Snyman says.

There are also a number of hygiene precautions that people can take against spreading the flu virus. The virus can be transmitted through the air via vapour droplets in sneezes and coughs; therefore when you cough or sneeze, you should cover your mouth with a tissue or the crook of your elbow, as this will help to stop the spread of the virus.

Regular hand washing with anti-bacterial soaps and hand sanitiser can help to stop transmission of the virus. Some common surfaces that could harbour viruses include keypads on ATMs or mobile card machines, doorknobs, taps and any other item touched by a number of people daily.

Dr Snyman advises people who become ill with flu to stay home from work, as this would likely spread the virus and delay recovery. “What employees and employers should consider is that flu is a highly infectious condition that can rapidly spread throughout a workforce and have a profound impact on productivity. Those who contract flu should therefore be encouraged to visit their doctor, stay at home and follow the clinicians instructions,” Dr Snyman says.

This is particularly true for those whose jobs entail physical labour, such as in the mining and agricultural sectors for example, as flu and associated infections place additional strain on the heart muscles. “It is therefore important to avoid strenuous activity until you have fully recovered from flu.

Dr Snyman recommends getting the flu vaccination as soon as possible to ensure the best possible protection against this unpleasant and potentially dangerous illness.

“The vaccine takes around two weeks to become fully effective. However, it does start to offer protection soon after it has been administered so get yours as soon as possible,” Dr Snyman concludes.