With South Africa still dealing with the spread of COVID-19, this year at least brought some hope in the form of vaccinations.
As winter is here and the age-old flu virus begins to spread, many are asking whether it is safe to have their annual flu shots alongside a COVID-19 vaccination.
Justine Lacy, Clinical Executive of Profmed Medical Scheme, says that people have no reason to be discouraged from taking their flu shots this season. “The flu vaccine may be administered in combination with the COVID-19 vaccine. With that said, people should still speak to their treating healthcare professional to confirm that it is the right choice for them.”
Lacy adds that while the COVID-19 is a still a very serious threat, South Africans should not forget that influenza also kills many people each year. According to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, annual estimates of between 7000 and 12000 seasonal influenza-associated deaths have been reported for South Africa. This is a clear indication that not enough people are vaccinating against the flu.”
She adds that getting the flu vaccine will protect against contracting the flu strain that is most dominant this season. “The idea is that you are injecting tiny bits of the inactive virus so your body can create antibodies. When the real virus comes along your body should be immune and can fight the virus.”
In South Africa, flu circulation is highly seasonal and peaks during the winter. The average season starts the first week of June; however, it could start as early as April or as late as July. The season typically lasts about 12 weeks but can be as short as seven weeks or as long as 25 weeks.
Lacy notes that it is also wrong to assume that taking the COVID-19 vaccination will replace the need to get a flu shot. “The flu vaccine and the COVID-19 vaccine cannot be compared as these two vaccines are administered for different purposes. The flu vaccine is provided to protect against contracting the flu strain that is most dominant this season, while the COVID-19 vaccine is administered to specifically protect against the SARS-CoV-2. The flu vaccine will not protect you from contracting COVID-19 and neither will the COVID vaccine protect you from contracting the flu.”
Lacy says one should consider, however the possibility that you could in fact contract COVID-19 and influenza at the same time. That could be a deadly combination of infection which may be avoided through having both vaccines administered.
She confirms that the flu vaccine does not afford 100% immunity against influenza but protects only against the major strains circulating. “According to the Department of Health, the vaccine is about 60% effective in healthy adults. The elderly, children less than two years old and people with weakened immune systems may not respond as well to the vaccine, but still get some protection from it. It is possible to contract the flu after being vaccinated, but this would most likely be a much milder version of the flu, so it is still worth getting the shot. It may prevent you from contracting a more severe form of flu which would require more expensive treatment and take longer to recover from.”
According to Lacy, not enough people are getting their flu shots each year. “From our own stats we can see that only 5251 of Profmed members who got vaccinated in 2020, which is quite a small number. Of those individuals, 20% had a chronic condition. We want to urge all our members (especially our high-risk members) to seriously consider getting a flu vaccination once a year.”
The flu vaccine is widely available, with major pharmacy chains administering them currently. Annual flu shots should also be covered by people’s medical schemes. Profmed, for instance, covers one vaccination per beneficiary per year under its Preventative Care Benefit. For individuals who don’t have medical insurance, the vaccine costs between R100 and R250, depending on whether the administrative costs have been included in the advertised price or not.
“Remember to call in advance before going to get your flu vaccine at the pharmacy or the doctor’s office to ensure that there is adequate stock available for everyone and also to continue to practice social distancing”
Lastly, Lacy warns that South Africans should not be lulled into thinking that flu season will not arrive. In 2020 the expected “flu season” was said not to have arrived, and fewer cases were indeed recorded. “It is likely that the strict lockdown and social distancing regulations which were implemented for COVID-19, may have had a big impact on the decrease in flu cases last year. Still, even if we see somewhat lower numbers again this year, it does not mean that the threat posed by influenza is gone. Staying healthy should be a top priority for everyone, especially in these times of increased risks,” she concludes.