The flu jab: protecting patients and busting myths
As the flu season gears up, we talk to Professor Peter Openshaw about the importance of the flu vaccine for NHS staff. It’s not just for the vulnerable few, but for all of us. Peter is professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London and a respiratory physician at St Mary’s Hospital. He leads the Infection Theme of Imperial’s Biomedical Research Centre, and works on the immunology of the lung, viral lung disease and vaccination. He is president of the British Society for Immunology and has advised the government on pandemic flu.
The flu jab can’t give you flu
There are lots of myths around the influenza – or flu – vaccine. One of the most common is that it can actually give you flu. This is simply not true – it contains no live viruses. You may get a slightly sore arm after having the vaccination but this is normal. It’s just the immune system responding to the vaccine and is a mild side effect which is a lot less serious than flu.
It’s understandable that people think there is a link between having the vaccine and developing flu-like illness because we tend to give the vaccine in the autumn – at the same time as seasonal coughs and colds start doing the rounds fuelled by children going back to school. This timing is dictated by when the vaccine is ready – it’s redesigned each year to boost our natural defences to the flu viruses that are circulating – and to ensure we have maximum protection for the length of the flu season. You might well get flu-like illnesses after having the vaccine, but the chances are this won’t be flu but other viral infections that the vaccine can’t cover.
Without the flu jab, you can catch and spread flu unknowingly
If you don’t have the flu vaccine, you can catch flu but not develop noticeable symptoms. A study of the 2009 flu pandemic found that around 75 per cent of people who had caught flu – shown by antibodies in their system – couldn’t recall any symptoms. Such people can unknowingly spread the infection to more vulnerable people, including the sick and elderly.
If you are a healthcare professional carrying the flu virus you pose a danger to patients who are susceptible to severe complications as a result of flu. In 2011, we studied people who had caught flu whilst they were in hospital. Of these patients, one third died. This just shows how important it is for healthcare professionals to get vaccinated and therefore reduce the risk of passing the infection on.
Getting your flu jab
I’d really recommend to all healthcare professionals to have the vaccine. I have mine every year. In the same way that we wash our hands or use sterilising gel to reduce the transmission of infection in our hospitals, we should all have the flu jab. We owe it to our patients, our colleagues and our families, as well as to ourselves.
Flu facts and figures
- The vaccine cannot give you flu – it does not contain live viruses
- Up to 70 per cent of infected people have no symptoms
- Up to a third of flu deaths in England are in otherwise healthy people
If you want to be vaccinated, be sure to get it as soon as you can. The injected flu vaccine is offered free of charge on the NHS to staff and to people who are at risk. You should have the flu vaccine if you:
- are 65 years of age or over
- are pregnant
- have certain medical conditions
- are living in a long-stay residential care home or other long-stay care facility
- receive a carer's allowance, or you are the main carer for an elderly or disabled person whose welfare may be at risk if you fall ill
- are a frontline health or social care worker