Flu season has officially arrived, with Australia already seeing thousands of cases of the virus.
Both COVID-19 and influenza are now circulating in the community, and health authorities are pleading with people to get their flu shot to reduce the “life-threatening” risk of having both at the same time.
Here is what you need to know about reducing your risk of catching influenza or the flu/COVID combo – dubbed ‘flurona’ – this winter.
When can you get the flu vaccine after recovering from COVID-19?
Ian Mackay, a virologist at the University of Queensland, says you can get the vaccine if you’ve recovered from the virus, but it’s best to wait if you’ve still got severe symptoms so as to not “fire up an already fired-up immune system”.
“So the usual thing with vaccination is if you’ve got any signs or symptoms or you’re ill – you’ve got a fever or anything like that – don’t get the vaccine at that particular time,” he said.
If you’re feeling fine, however, you’re good to go straight away.
“Once you’re better, and once you’re out of isolation, you can go and have your flu vaccine safely,” says Maria Boulton from AMA Queensland.
Can you get both the flu and COVID-19 shots on the same day?
Yes, under ATAGI guidelines, people are now able to get a COVID-19 vaccine and flu vaccine at the same time, even though the previous advice was to wait.
“[The prior advice] was just making sure that it was safe,” Dr Mackay said.
“And that really requires seeing what happens with different groups around the world who are doing two vaccinations at once, and one followed by another, or in the opposite order.
“It’s really just making sure there is enough data for the Australian authorities to give the best advice.
“I really strongly recommend you do get your flu shot and your booster at the same time. And you’ll be as safe as you can possibly be.”
Dr Boulton says her clinic has experienced an uptick in the number of people receiving both vaccines together.
“There’s no need to delay and we’re getting a lot of patients who are taking us up on both at the same time, and it’s really great because then they don’t have to come back again,” she said.
Does the flu shot actually work though?
Dr Mackay says the most common reason people are hesitant about getting the flu shot is because they believe it doesn’t protect them well from the flu.
“We tend to think of the flu vaccine as being a bit rubbish, and that’s not really true,” he said.
“If it’s a good match it’s a really good vaccine.
He says its effectiveness really depends on how the virus has changed or evolved by the time the flu season arrives.
“That means the vaccines have to change. It’s not about a rubbish vaccine. It’s about how much that virus has outsmarted us. And because we have to predict ahead of time to make our flu vaccines, we are hoping that what arrives in winter is what we planned for.
“We’re not always brilliantly protected from the flu. That’s not the fault of the vaccine. It’s the fault of the fact that this is a slippery virus.”
Dr Boulton says there have definitely been fewer people getting vaccinated against the flu so far this year, compared to last.
“I think people are slightly fatigued about vaccines, but it is important to know that the flu can be a serious condition, especially for young young babies, older people, people with chronic illnesses and pregnant women,” she said.
“Our borders are open. There’s not as many restrictions as there were before. And so we expect that the flu virus will circulate once again. And we know that for some people they can have quite a severe disease so the best thing we can do is vaccinate.”
What can we expect from this flu season?
It’s been a long time since we’ve had a ‘flu season’ and Dr Mackay says it’s important to remember there are four main types of flu and they all circulate at the same time – another reason why making a foolproof vaccine is difficult.
“It’s going to be a bit different this year, I think, than it has been for the last two years, but generally there’s two different flu Bs and two different flu As and they all co-circulate,” he said.
“They’re all flu viruses and they’re all more different from each other than any of the variants of SARS‐CoV‐2 . So there’s a whole lot of variety in there that we just don’t really talk about.”
He says influenza A seems to be the dominant strain at the moment.
Queensland Chief Health Officer John Gerrard says the transmission of influenza has been significantly impacted by measures designed to slow the spread of coronavirus over the past two years.
The result, he says, is we have not been been as exposed to the virus over the past two years as we normally would be.
“As our pandemic measures have relaxed, we are seeing increasing numbers of influenza and we are likely to see a significant wave of influenza on top of COVID-19 this winter,” he said.
What about ‘flurona’?
On Wednesday, Queensland health minister Yvette D’Ath warned some people would get both COVID-19 and influenza at the same time
She there was a “great risk” of it being “life threatening”.
“We want to reduce these risks,” she said.
“It’s in your hands, it’s easy: get in and get your jab today.”
Dr Mackay says we can expect a “mixed bag” of outcomes for people who get infected with both the flu and coronavirus.
“We’ve seen studies that say they’re worse outcomes when you have more than one infection at a time, sometimes even better outcomes, and sometimes no different than if you have either one by itself,” he said.
“So it’s not really clear, based on the history of respiratory virus, how that will play out, and we just don’t know enough yet about flu and corona together.”
Dr Boulton says there have been reports of people infected with both viruses experiencing more severe symptoms.
Where can I get the flu shot?
The influenza vaccine is now widely available at GPs and pharmacies, and Dr Boulton says now is a good time to get it.
“If you go and get it now, you’ll be protected for that winter peak, so there’s no need to delay,” she said.
“Also, there are some requirements. For example … if you have a relative in some of the aged care facilities, you will need to provide evidence that you’ve had a flu vaccine so that the residents are protected.”
The National Immunisation Program Schedule helps eligible people access the influenza vaccine for free. Eligible groups include:
- children from six months to less than five years of age
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged six months and over
- people 65 years and over
- pregnant women
- people aged six months and over with certain medical risk factors including heart disease, severe asthma, chronic lung conditions, impaired immunity, and other conditions.
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