The coronavirus pandemic, which took the world by surprise, exposed the underbelly of the health systems worldwide. Healthcare systems in advanced economies such as Italy, Spain, US, France, etc. were quickly overwhelmed as tens of millions of residents in these countries caught the virus leading to the death of millions. In US, for instance, more than 27 million people had been infected as of 15 February, with close to half a million reported dead from the virus.
Africa, particularly Nigeria, has been inexplicably fortunate with COVID-19 in terms of infection and death rates. There had been fears at the outset of the virus in Nigeria that it would not only overrun the country’s fragile health system but that hundreds of thousands of lives or possibly millions might be lost to the virus. That has not happened though and is very unlikely it would. As of 15 February, almost a year since the virus got into the country, fewer than 200,000 infections had been recorded and only about 1,747 lives, unfortunately, had been lost. No doubt, as a nation, and a global community, we are facing extraordinary times as a result of COVID-19.
Despite the relative low spread of the virus, there is a real threat of the second wave of the pandemic, with new strains, becoming far more dangerous. This is so because the second wave is coinciding with the upcoming flu season, which would place huge pressure on an already-stretched health system.
The flu or influenza season is usually the cold wet periods during the rains. So, how is the cold, flu season of any relevance to COVID-19? The seasonal influenza is presented much the same way as the coronavirus. Viruses seem to thrive in temperate climate. The flu, like COVID-19, is a viral infection that attacks the respiratory system. And like the coronavirus, it is airborne and can be transmitted via droplets as we speak, sneeze or cough. It is a serious condition that can lead to severe complications such as heart attacks and strokes and has a huge human, societal and economic impact.
Flu is a contributing factor to five out of the top 10 deaths globally, with 3 to 5 million severe influenza cases reported worldwide. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that flu may be responsible for an estimated 290,000 to 650,000 respiratory deaths per year worldwide, with a global burden of about 10 million influenza-related hospitalisations every year.
According to a recent study, one is 10 times more likely to have a heart attack in the week after being diagnosed with the flu and eight times more likely to have a stroke. People over 65 years of age are most susceptible to flu and its complications, because the immune system deteriorates with age (immunosenescence), experiencing a higher risk of influenza-associated morbidity and mortality. 50%-70% of hospitalisations occur in people aged over 65 and 70%-85% of flu-related deaths occur in this age group.
Those with other chronic conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart disease and diabetes are at greater risk of flu-related complications than the general population. For example, people with heart conditions are 10 times more likely to die from flu complications and diabetes triples the risk of hospitalisation for flu complications and quadruples the risk of intensive care unit (ICU) admission once in hospital. Furthermore, flu can cause increased exacerbations in asthma and COPD patients.
Because age increases susceptibility to infection, older adults are the most at risk for influenza infection and serious outcomes. Influenza infection can contribute to functional decline, or a senior’s inability to recover back to full prior functional capacity once the infection has passed. Adults aged over 65 represent 9 in 10 influenza-related deaths and 63% of influenza-related hospitalisations.
As we approach the flu season, however, we need not panic because the good news is that there are vaccines that are readily available to protect against influenza. And the vaccines are fairly effective against the different strains of the flu. The Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) has been encouraging Nigerians to take the flu vaccine. According to NCDC, the flu vaccination is particularly critical this season because the flu and COVID-19 cause similar symptoms. So, getting the flu shot could reduce symptoms that could be mistaken for those caused by COVID-19.
Indeed, flu vaccination is still the most effective way to protect yourself, those around you who may be more vulnerable to the disease and the wider economy. Flu vaccination is especially important for people at high risk of flu complications, and for people who live with or care for the people at high risk. These include pregnant women at any stage of pregnancy, children aged between 6 months and 5 years, elderly individuals with chronic medical conditions, individuals, including young people, with chronic medical conditions, and healthcare workers. The WHO thus recommends annual vaccination for these group of people, especially, and for everyone else.
Viruses mutate, however, and develop new strains that may be resistant to vaccines not specifically developed for such new strains. Thus, there is often the concern that a particular flu vaccine may not be effective enough against certain types of flu.
Sanofi Pasteur, the world’s largest manufacturer of innovative influenza vaccines, may have addressed these worries with its newly developed influenza vaccine. Sanofi has for decades been offering effective vaccines to protect people at every stage of life, including over 65s, at-risk groups and the general population. The company now produces more than 220 million doses of seasonal influenza vaccine, representing a significant proportion of the global supply.
Sanofi Pasteur said the new influenza vaccine uses recombinant technology, the first to do so. Recombinant technology is a precise and innovative manufacturing process which generates an exact genetic match to the selected influenza virus strains. Large clinical trials have shown that recombinant quadrivalent (QIVr) provides greater coverage and protection for the under 65s at-risk populations and has proven efficacy and safety. Quadrivalent influenza vaccine (QIV) is a well-established standard dose quadrivalent suitable for under 65s with or without comorbidities, pregnant women, healthcare workers and ex-COVID patients.
With COVID-19 ravaging the country and the seasonal influenza soon to join, you don’t want to take chances with your health and those of your loved ones. And you don’t want to have the flu and people confuse it for COVID-19. Neither do you want to be susceptible to COVID-19 through the flu, which is why it is essential you do whatever you can, including getting vaccinated, to avoid contracting the flu this season. Now is the time to act by asking your doctor for a flu vaccine shot.