Flu’s startling effect on the heart

I’ve just managed to muscle my way into the queue – at a suitable distance to others, of course – at the local pharmacy for a flu shot. It was impossible to register online for this group of pharmacies because most have been unable to get supplies. But I’ve struck it lucky. Mission accomplished.

Now I’ve read that there is yet another excellent reason to get the vaccine – it protects your heart.

The Heart Foundation is alerting all Australians that they are six times more likely to have a heart attack the week after a bout of influenza. Yet another reason to get your jab before the flu season starts to peak in June.

New data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics reveals that almost five million Australian adults do not intend to get their flu shot this year

Heart Foundation manager-risk reduction Natalie Raffoul says it’s not widely known that influenza can trigger a heart attack, or that a flu shot can protect our hearts.

“International studies have found that the influenza vaccine can cut the risk of having a heart attack by up to 45 per cent,” she says.

“Catching the flu increases the risk of hospitalisation and death for all Australians but people with heart disease are especially at risk.

“If you have heart disease, it is vital that you see your doctor or pharmacist to get a flu shot every year. Getting a case of the flu can cause long-term, irreversible heart problems and can be life threatening.”

Ms Raffoul explains that acute viral infections can cause a severe inflammatory response as the body fights the infection, which can strain the heart and trigger heart failure or an abnormal heartbeat.

The flu can also destabilise the plaque inside our blood vessels, which can lead to a blockage and a possible heart attack or stroke.

Despite the risk, existing data reveals that only half of Australians living with chronic conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, asthma, cancer and stroke, get their regular flu shot.

“The crossover between influenza season and the current COVID-19 pandemic makes it even more important for vulnerable Australians to get their flu shot in a timely fashion,” Ms Raffoul said. 

The federal government’s National Immunisation Program (NIP) provides free vaccines to those most at risk, including people living with heart disease, those over 65 years and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

However, doctors’ groups are reporting that they are having to ration flu vaccinations due to a severe nationwide shortage caused by distribution failures and record demand.

“There’s been an enormous take-up of the flu vaccine very quickly, and I think the logistics has basically failed in the early weeks,” said Australian Medical Association president Tony Bartone.

A record 16.5 million flu vaccines had been secured this year, but Dr Harry Nespolon, president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP), said efficient delivery of the vaccines continued to be a major problem.

“The vaccines are coming, just getting enough of them is difficult,” he said.

“So, 500 vaccinations might sound like a lot of vaccinations but for a big clinic they would get through them in a day or two. And they’re getting 50.”

The Immunisation Coalition reports that there have been 20,275 laboratory confirmed notifications of influenza in Australia for 2020 until 4 May.

In 2019, 47,000 cases were reported across Australia for the year to the end of April and 66 deaths recorded.

April last year was the worst month on record for confirmed cases of influenza – six times higher than April 2017, which was the deadliest on record with 1137 deaths.

Doctors attribute the lower numbers to social isolation measures but warn that the trend might not last.

Have you had problems getting a flu shot? Did you know that the flu could lead to heart problems?

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Written by Janelle Ward

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