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How vaccination can save lives

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To mark National Influenza Vaccination Week, Dr Rajan Verma, Medical Director, Lab operations, Oncquest Laboratories revisits the need for influenza vaccinations

To raise awareness regarding influenza vaccination and its importance, National Influenza Vaccination Week is observed every year during the first week of December (December 1-7). Influenza is a kind of viral disease that targets our respiratory system. It is often referred to as “the flu” but it is quite different from the stomach flu viruses which induce diarrhoea and vomiting. In most cases, the body’s immune system gets rid of the flu on its own, but sometimes the complications may occur as well – which could be fatal.

Who would be more prone to developing complications after contracting the influenza infection?

  • Children below the age of 5; especially those less than six months old. Young children do not have very strong immune systems that can fight off the virus. Hence, they may suffer from complications. The same can be said about senior citizens above the age of 65. They are highly immunocompromised and their bodies cannot deal effectively with the virus.
  • People who share their living space with other people. For instance, the residents of nursing homes, hospitals, old-age homes, etc.
  • Pregnant women or women who’ve just given birth are also easy targets for the virus.
  • People who are suffering from co-morbidities like diabetes, asthma, AIDS, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, kidney and liver diseases, etc. may already have compromised immune systems. Their bodies may fail to counter the virus in time.
  • People who have a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 40 or higher.

What type of complications can occur in extreme cases?

If you’re fit and young, the flu may not cause too much trouble for you. While you may feel sick for a week or two, it usually goes away on its own without any lasting symptoms. However, it may result in the development of complications in the risk-prone demographic that we already talked about. The complications may include

  • Pneumonia
  • Bronchitis
  • Asthma flare-ups
  • Heart issues
  • Ear infections
  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome

Pneumonia is the most serious complication. For old people or people suffering from asthma, pneumonia may lead to death.

Symptoms of influenza

During the initial stages, an influenza infection might feel like a common cold. However, the differentiating factor is that while the common cold develops slowly, the flu comes out of the blue. Following are the prominent symptoms that one might observe upon contracting the infection.

  • Persistent fever
  • Pain in muscles
  • Cold sweats
  • Headaches
  • Dry cough that won’t go away
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling fatigued or tired all the time
  • Sometimes runny and sometimes stuffy nose
  • Sore throat
  • Pain in the eyes
  • Vomiting and diarrhea. However, it must be noted that these symptoms are usually common among children than adults.

Symptoms that suggest complications and warrant a visit to the doctor

  • Difficulty breathing and being constantly out of breath.
  • Pain in the chest area.
  • Feeling dizzy or suffering from seizures.
  • Co-morbidities like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases going out of control.
  • Extreme weakness and persistent muscle pain.

How does an influenza vaccine help?

An influenza vaccine, much like all other vaccines, is simply the influenza virus in a weakened state. Once this virus is introduced in your body, the immune system starts developing antibodies against it – fortifying its defences. This way, your body’s immune system gets to recognise the virus, and gets itself ready to combat the virus should it enter the body again. While the influenza vaccine is not 100 per cent effective, it still is your best defence against the disease. The vaccine can be administered to anyone older than six months, so there is no excuse not to get vaccinated against the flu.

Also, getting vaccinated against influenza is more important than ever now because of the COVID-19 pandemic that is unleashing havoc around the world. Since COVID-19 and influenza both primarily target the respiratory system, contracting these two diseases together could turn out to be fatal. It is, therefore, vital that everyone gets vaccinated against influenza.

What precautions can one observe to avoid contracting the disease in the first place?

It’s like they say, “Prevention is better than cure.” While getting vaccinated is a good first step, you should keep in mind that it isn’t 100 per cent effective and you need to observe precautions to keep yourself safe from the virus. Ironically, people have already been made aware of these precautions this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here’s a quick recap though

  • Wash your hands regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Alcohol-based sanitizers can also get the job done.
  • Avoid touching your face – eyes, nose, and mouth – as much as possible.
  • Cover your mouth with a handkerchief or the inside of your elbow when you cough or sneeze. Wear masks at all times when you’re in a public place.
  • Make it a point to regularly clean surfaces like handles and doorknobs that are touched by a lot of people.
  • Avoid going to crowded spaces like cinema halls, shopping malls, stadiums, etc. as much as possible.

Influenza is a dangerous disease but it is easily avoidable if we follow a proper hygiene regimen and get ourselves vaccinated against it. This National Influenza Vaccination Week, get yourself vaccinated and encourage others to do the same.

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