Colds and flu

Updated 27 September 2017

Debunking myths about flu and the flu vaccine

Winter is on its way, and with it comes the threat of flu. So, let's clear up some myths about flu and the flu vaccine.

There are many misconceptions surrounding influenza (commonly referred to as “flu”) and the vaccine.  Here are a few that have been discredited:

Myth: Flu is not that serious.
Fact: Flu is actually a severe and potentially life threatening disease which kills more than 500 000 people worldwide every year. 

Myth: Getting the flu is natural and almost expected every year, as it does the rounds.
Fact: Incorrect. Flu can be avoided by getting the flu vaccine.

Myth: The flu shot causes flu.
Fact: Impossible. The vaccine contains killed virus particles. Only minor side effects might occur, such as a headache or a low-grade fever.

Myth: The flu vaccine is only for the elderly and high risk patients.
Fact: Flu affects people of ALL ages.

Myth: I was vaccinated last year, so I am good to go.

Fact: Every year a new vaccine is manufactured based on that year's prevalent circulating flu strains. You are only safe if you get vaccinated every year.

Read: Echinacea proven to fight flu

When to get vaccinated

“The sooner the better, before the winter flu season hits us,” says Mogologolo Phasha, Chairman of the Independent Community Pharmacy Association (ICPA). 

The ICPA urges members of the public to go to their nearest local independent pharmacy clinic to be vaccinated in order to protect their health and to curb the spread of influenza.

“Many people die every year as a result of complications from flu, with most of the deaths occurring in people who are considered high risk,” explains Phasha. “Those considered high risk are pregnant women; children between the ages of six months and five years; people older than 65; those with HIV/Aids; chronic disease sufferers; and those who work and live in densely populated areas and high traffic sites. Teachers, students and cashiers in busy retail outlets are examples.”

The ICPA advises that being vaccinated not only protects you from the flu but also protects your community from the virus. The virus can have a severe effect on the elderly, young children and others whose immune systems are compromised and may not be able to fight infection.

How do flu vaccines work?

Flu vaccines cause antibodies to develop in the body about two weeks after vaccination. These antibodies provide protection against infection from the viruses that are contained in the vaccine.

The vaccine increases a person's defence against the influenza virus. It works by introducing very small amounts of viral components into the body. These components are enough to stimulate the production of antibodies (cells designed to attack that particular virus), which will remain in the body ready to attack that same virus in the future. The vaccine is used to prevent influenza and is developed for those who want to reduce their chances of contracting the flu.

“The seasonal flu vaccine protects against the influenza viruses that research indicates will be most common during the upcoming season,” explains the ICPA. “It is important to make sure you receive your flu vaccine as soon as it becomes available at your local pharmacy, as it takes about two weeks after vaccination for the antibodies to develop in the body and provide protection against the flu strains. Influenza seasons are unpredictable and can begin early, so don’t be caught unaware.”

Read: Paid sick leave reduces the spread of flu

Other ways to boost your resistance against the flu this winter

South Africans can also take some basic hygiene steps to protect themselves and their families from coming down with the flu. Take the necessary precautions by washing your hands often, covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue and staying at home when you are ill so that you don’t spread germs.

The ICPA concludes that if you think you’re coming down with a bug, and especially if you have a fever, rather wait until you’re feeling better before being vaccinated.

Read more:

Time of day may make flu shot more effective

Prince's flu and other health problems

'Man flu' common among SA men


Ask the Expert

Flu expert

Dr Heidi van Deventer completed her MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 2004 at the University of Stellenbosch.
She has additional training in ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) and PALS (Paediatric Advanced Life Support) as well as biostatistics and epidemiology.

Dr Van Deventer is currently working as a researcher at the Desmond Tutu Tuberculosis Centre at the University of Stellenbosch.

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