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Flu vaccinations may not guarantee protection

Flu, or influenza to give it its proper name, can occur at any time of year. Here in the UK flu is a constant threat every winter because of the prevalence of “seasonal” flus which are caused by viruses that infect the respiratory tract, the nose, throat and lungs.

These are quite different from other viral respiratory infections such as a cold; and flu can cause severe illness and life threatening complications. The threat of these increase as we age.

Flu seasons are unpredictable. In the UK there hasn’t been a major flu season since the winter of 2010-11. This year however there is concern because cases of flu are already at their highest levels for three years. The main type of flu that has appeared so far is influenza A type H3N2, a strain that unfortunately seems to especially target older people.

Today there is good take up of the flu vaccine that is offered by GPs across the country, but this year the threat of a serious flu epidemic has been lifted by growing concern that the current flu vaccines being used may be less effective. Scientists are warning that the flu virus has mutated to avoid the immunity traditionally provided by a flu jab.

The problem is that the effectiveness of a flu vaccinations depends on two main aspects; the characteristics of the person being vaccinated (such as their age and health), and the similarity or "match" between the flu viruses the flu vaccine is designed to protect against and the flu viruses that are actually spreading in the community that season. When there is a good match between the flu vaccine and the circulating viruses, the vaccination can be very effective in preventing flu. But when the match is not good, there can be little or even no benefit from a flu vaccination.

There are three types of influenza viruses: A, B and C. But within these categories there are various strains and types which make developing the perfect vaccination difficult. Traditional flu vaccines (called trivalent vaccines) are made to protect against three flu viruses, an influenza A (H1N1) virus, an influenza A (H3N2) virus, and an influenza B virus. In addition, there are flu vaccines made to protect against four flu viruses (called “quadrivalent” vaccines). These vaccines protect against the same viruses as the trivalent vaccine plus add protection for an additional B virus.

But it is a very complex area, and while flu vaccines can go a long way in protecting you against developing flu and its consequences, it is never a guarantee.

The very best way is reduce a major flu outbreak is for people who develop the symptoms to take real care to ensure they don’t spread it to others. The flu virus, whatever strain, is spread in small droplets of fluid that are coughed or sneezed into the air by an infected person. The droplets can travel several feet and infect anyone who breathes them in. Flu also spreads by touch. You can pick the virus up on your fingers in minute droplets from your eyes, nose or a tissue; then when you touch a hard surface such as a door handle or a keyboard; the next person who touches this may well pick up the infection. So anyone with flu really should stay away from others and take very great care on their hygiene with careful disposal of tissues, regular hand washing and so on.

There are some precautions you can take to stop yourself catching flu: not standing near anyone obviously suffering from a virus; washing your hands regularly and wiping surfaces used by others such as a computer keyboard or door handles to get rid of germs before you touch them.

It is great that so many people are taking up the offer of a flu vaccination each year, but don’t feel you are immune just because you have had the injection. Being on your guard and taking care to avoid people who may have flu could save you from an unpleasant time this winter.

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