It’s likely you’ve given at least a passing thought to vaccines in recent weeks and months – Covid-19 vaccines, that is. But the spotlight on Covid-19 shouldn’t blind you to the need for a flu and pneumonia vaccination as winter quickly approaches.
In fact, the loosening of Covid-19 lockdowns makes it even more important you have a flu shot this winter than last winter, Amanda Curran, a respiratory care nurse at Lung Foundation Australia, says, after social restrictions designed to control the pandemic helped deliver an unusually mild 2020 flu season.
“People have been more protected than usual from virus transmission because they’ve been at home in enforced isolation or have been self-isolating, and everyone has been so aware of how diseases are spread and have done their best to stop that happening,” Curran says.
According to the government’s Australian Influenza Surveillance Report, there were far fewer flu cases in 2020 compared to previous years and over-65s reported fewer cases than other age groups.
But Curran, who’s been a nurse for 30 years and focused on respiratory nursing for more than 10 years, says that shouldn’t cause anyone to become complacent about flu vaccinations this year.
“The more we mix in our community and that we’re around other people, the higher chance that we have of spreading or contracting illnesses,” she explains. “Winter can be a dangerous time as the risk of contracting nasty bugs or viruses increases significantly in the community so as we get back to living as we normally would, we have to be careful again of virus transmission.”
Do I really need a flu shot?
You’re no doubt well aware that Covid-19 can be life-threatening, but that’s the case for the flu too. Although the flu caused 37 deaths last year, in 2019 it killed 900 people and in 2017 1,255 people. For context, Covid-19 has, so far, caused the deaths of 910 Australians.
And people aged 65-plus are at the highest risk of being hospitalised by the flu. Even less serious cases of the flu can involve fevers and chills, muscle aches, joint pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.
A flu vaccination provides the greatest protection against the flu in the three to four months immediately after you’ve had the shot, which is why it’s recommended that you get vaccinated shortly before the peak flu season of June to September. And because flu viruses change constantly, and the vaccine is reviewed and updated to match those changes, getting the flu shot is something you should do every year – particularly when a vaccine is so easily available.
“There are seven types of flu vaccines registered and available for use in Australia this year,” Curran says. “It’s important that you get the right vaccine for your age and your immunisation provider can tell you which vaccine they are going to use for you.”
Which of the seven vaccines is most suitable for you is determined by the Australian Immunisation Handbook and the current government-funded National Immunisation Program, which also ensures over-65s are eligible for a free flu vaccination. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged over six months are eligible for a free flu vaccination too, as are people aged six months or over who have a medical condition that puts them at greater risk of developing complications from the flu, including those with chronic lung disease.
Lung Foundation Australia has a wealth of easy-to-understand information about the flu and this year’s flu vaccine, plus answers to common questions about both, on its website.
“Remember that you can get your vaccine from a range of other vaccine providers,” Curran says. “Your GP generally gives you your vaccinations, but in addition, people can also get their vaccines through their local council or community health clinics, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander medical services, pharmacies and also aged care facilities.
“If you are not eligible for a free vaccine, you can still receive it by paying for it. The cost depends on the type of vaccine, the formula and where you buy it from. Your immunisation provider, such as your doctor or pharmacist, can give you more information.”
Keeping track of which flu vaccine you’ve had, especially in a year when you may also get a Covid-19 vaccine, is easier if you use Lung Foundation Australia’s free, downloadable Vaccination Tracker that lets you record your vaccination appointments and vaccine types.
Can I get the flu shot AND the Covid-19 vaccine together?
Curran explains that it’s recommended that you leave 14 days between your flu shot and a Covid-19 vaccination, adding that there’s no requirement to have the flu vaccine before your Covid-19 jab or vice versa. A 14-day gap between the vaccinations ensures that if you experience common side effects from one vaccine, it will be clear which vaccination has caused those side effects – it’s a precautionary measure.
All flu vaccines used in Australia are ‘inactivated’ – that means they don’t contain a live flu virus – so you can’t catch the flu from the shot but you may experience some mild flu-like symptoms such as a low-level fever or pain at the injection site, as the vaccine triggers your body’s immune response. These reactions are usually mild, short-lived and don’t require treatment.
Meanwhile, the government’s Health Direct site says that common side effects from Covid-19 vaccines include pain or swelling at the injection site, chills or fever, tiredness, muscle, joint and/or head pain, nausea and a generally unwell feeling
“Spacing your flu and Covid-19 vaccinations is also important so it can be determined, if you do experience side-effects, which vaccine your body is responding to,” Curran says.
The Vaccination Tracker can help you ensure you leave the recommended 14 days between your flu shot and the Covid-19 vaccine. The tracker can also be a good conversation starter if you’ve got concerns about either vaccination and want to talk to your doctor.
“The Vaccination Tracker is a simple way to keep track of your appointments but it can also help you to discuss the recommended vaccinations for your age, and the advice and recommendations for you if you have a medical condition that places them at greater risk of acquiring a disease,” Curran says. “It provides you with an opportunity to look more broadly at your vaccination status and all the vaccines that are available in Australia to protect you.”
Article by Lung Foundation Australia on 26 May 2021