Colds and flu

11 August 2015

Why it is a bad year for flu in South Africa

Flu can put even the healthiest individual out of action for up to two weeks, and may result in dangerous complications in some people.


Resolution Health Medical Scheme has experienced a significant number of claims for flu related illnesses, according to clinical advisor Dr Jacques Snyman.

“The flu strains in circulation this year are seemingly highly virulent and large numbers of people have already been treated for influenza.”

Read: If you had flu, it most likely was swine 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, for those individuals who have weakened immune systems it can be serious and complications resulting from flu can even be deadly," warned Dr Snyman.

He said children under the age of five, the elderly, HIV-positive individuals, diabetes and asthma sufferers may be at particular high risk of developing serious complications such as pneumonia.

Dr Snyman encouraged all South Africans to take precautions against spreading the virus, noting that close on 140 people, most of whom were children, were reported as having died in the United States as a result of flu complications during their winter this past season.

Infograph: Five things you need to know about the flu vaccine

“Taking precautions against spreading the flu virus and having the vaccination administered are in my view the responsible things to do. By having the vaccine administered and conducting proper hygiene practices, we can help to prevent the spread of this disease.”

Although the vaccine may not offer a complete safeguard from flu, he said it does offer a good measure of protection. In addition, he pointed out that the vaccine may also significantly reduce the severity of the symptoms and the risk of complications, noting that this is evident from the statistics of Resolution Health.

“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 show that those who do have the flu vaccine administered have a substantially lower hospital admission rate,” said Dr Snyman.

Read: Most South Africans go to work when they have the flu

Large numbers of South Africans are in the habit of reporting for work even when they are ill with infectious conditions such as flu.

A recent study by Pharma Dynamics indicates that nearly half of South Africans say that they are not able to take off work when they suffer illnesses such as flu.

“People feel that they simply cannot afford to take off work as their presence is too important. Nearly 20% of respondents in the study reported that they felt pressurised by employers to report for work when they felt ill.”

“What these employees and employers do not consider is that flu is a highly infectious condition that can rapidly spread throughout a workforce and have a profound impact on productivity. In addition, serious flu strains can lead to debilitating complications such as bronchitis and pneumonia in even the healthiest of individuals."

He said those individuals who contract flu should be encouraged to stay at home, obtain sufficient bed rest and visit their doctor.

Read: 15 tips to stay healthy in winter

Another way in which we can assist in preventing the spread of the flu virus is by ensuring that we undertake sound hygiene practices.

The flu virus may be transmitted through the air via vapour droplets in sneezes and coughs. It may also remain on surfaces such as table surfaces or doorknobs. Dr Snyman said that regular hand washing with anti-bacterial soaps and hand sanitiser can help to stop transmission of the virus.

The flu virus can be kept from spreading at work and other public places in the following ways:

- Stay at home and avoid other people if you have flu.
- As far as possible, avoid touching your mouth, eyes or nose.
- Wash your hands with anti-bacterial soaps and make sure that you dry them with a clean towel.
- Use a tissue to cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing. Dispose of the tissue and wash your hands afterwards.

Read: Fight flu with these foods

Integrative Medical Practitioner Dr Erika Coertzen said health and wellbeing comes from personal choices and smart lifestyle changes.

"Flu is a virus and therefor your own immune system is the most important factor in the healing process," she said.
"To optimise your immune system you must eat healthily, sleep enough and be physically active. During stressful times it is important to take a multivitamin, vit C, vit D and zinc."

She said herbal supplements to optimise your immune system are echinacea, propolis and olive leave extract.

"Homeopathic products are very helpful because they work with the body's own intelligence and are safe for everybody including babies and pregnant women. Oscillococcinum (Boiron), Grippe (Heel), R6 (Dr Reckeweg) are the products that I use the most during the flu season."

Dr Coertzen often hears people say they never get sick and therefor do not take any measures to prevent the flu.

"It is still very important to know your own body. Physical, emotional and environmental stress can cause a weakened immune system, and if you do get flu it might result in a prolonged episode or secondary infections. Rather be safe than sorry!"

Also read:

South Africans warned of severe flu strains

Make your own flu shot

Sore throat gargles and remedies that work

Image: A women suffering from the flu from Shutterstock


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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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