Australians urged to get a flu shot amid coronavirus outbreak

Health experts are encouraging Australians to get a flu shot this year, in a bid to avoid burdening hospitals already strained with the coronavirus pandemic.

While the flu vaccine doesn’t combat COVID-19, it does help reduce the severity and spread of seasonal influenza.

Doctors say getting vaccinated could also help prevent you from catching a flu strain that makes you more susceptible to coronavirus.

Should you get your flu shot earlier this later?

Australian chief medical officer Prof Paul Kelly says Australia has over-ordered vaccines this year, with “ample supplies for vulnerable people in particular”.

Professor Robert Booy, of Sydney Medical School, says it’s important people don’t wait too long to get their flu shot.

“The threat is now,” Prof Booy says. “Whether you choose to get a booster shot in a couple of months is up to you, but you should book in now.

“What may happen, and what is very worrying, is that you could get COVID-19 and then flu at the same time, or in the other order.

“Both can affect the lungs, and if you get a double infection, you could be at greater risk from pneumonia.”

Prof Booy says if you are over 65 or have a chronic medical condition, book in with your GP. Otherwise, book in with a pharmacy.

“Chemists are more important than ever because they can deliver a high number of vaccines,” he says.

Chemist Warehouse will again offer flu vaccinations at in-store clinics this year, with bookings already up five times compared with the same time last year.

Who should get a flu vaccine in 2020?

The Australian Government recommends everyone aged six months and over be immunised against seasonal flu.

Influenza is the most common preventable disease in Australia. And while it tends to cause mild symptoms, it can also cause very serious illness in otherwise healthy people – and lead to hospitalisation and even death.

Vaccination is a safe and effective way to protect yourself, and people who get vaccinated are at lower risk of getting an infection (and developing serious disease) than those who do not.

The flu virus is constantly evolving to beat our immune system, so the vaccine is designed around four specific strains each year, based on global data showing viruses that were dominant the previous winter.

The Australian Health Department reported more than 800 influenza-associated deaths and just under 300,000 cases of laboratory-confirmed flu in Australia in 2019. Of those admitted to hospital in 2019 for the flu, 40 per cent were adults 65 years and older.

Common flu symptoms

  • Fever or chills and sweats
  • Aching muscles and joints
  • Sore throat, cough or runny/blocked nose
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Headache

Coronavirus symptoms are similar, but include shortness of breath as well as fever, coughing, sore throat and feelings of fatigue. The Healthdirect coronavirus symptom checker is a handy tool if you are concerned you may have COVID-19.

Why you need a flu shot every year

Immunity offered by the flu vaccine wears off after some time – and flu strains constantly change – which is why annual flu shots are recommended for optimal protection.

The national immunisation program provides free flu shots to eligible Australians, including those over 65, pregnant women, people with medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, severe asthma and kidney disease, and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders from six months of age.

People working in aged care homes or long-term care facilities, healthcare workers, early childhood educators, people travelling overseas and those who live or work with someone at high risk of serious illness from the flu are all also urged to immunise.

A GP can recommend the best time to get vaccinated based on individual circumstances or book an appointment to have the flu shot at your local Chemist Warehouse store.

5 ways to prevent the spread of flu

While it is important to get the flu shot every year to maintain protection, you should also make sure to:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly and often. Know how to wash your hands properly.
  • Cover coughs and sneezes (to stop virus droplets travelling to other people/surfaces).
  • Bin your tissues.
  • Avoid sharing (cups, plates, cutlery and towels).
  • Keep surfaces clean.

Written by Liz McGrath.