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Everything you need to know about the 2020 flu vaccine

7 minute read
A young woman laying under a blanket on a leather lounge and blowing her nose.

You’re fit, healthy and haven’t had anything more serious than a chest cold in years. You’ve been socially distancing yourself and following all the guidelines the Government has recommended – and with COVID-19, the flu is the last thing on your mind.

So, do you really need to get a flu shot in 2020? Is it worth the hassle?

The experts say overwhelmingly, yes; and this year, we’re being urged to get the flu shot as early as possible.

As the COVID-19 pandemic (also known as the novel coronavirus) and the Australian flu season start to converge, it’s likely that we will hit a peak of COVID-19 cases right in the middle of flu season (which in Australia usually peaks around August).

Both diseases can cause serious illness. The flu can be serious enough to send you to hospital, even if you are young and otherwise well – and recovery isn’t necessarily quick, with many people requiring weeks off work to recoup.

Every year, it’s estimated that thousands of Australians die from influenza and last year was a particularly bad and long flu season. So, to help prepare for the 2020 season, the Government has secured a record number of flu vaccines.

It’s important to reiterate that although the flu vaccine doesn’t guarantee you won’t get the flu, if you do get it, your symptoms will be milder and you’ll recover more quickly.

And, with many Aussies eligible for a free flu shot and with the vaccine available at many pharmacies and GPs, there’s no better time than now to get the jab.

We’ve answered some of the big questions you might have about the flu shot.

Will the flu shot protect me against COVID-19?

There’s no vaccine for COVID-19 yet. The reason why medical professionals are pushing hard for the population as a whole to get the flu vaccine is to help prevent individuals from acquiring two serious illnesses at once (like COVID-19 and the flu). It’s also to reduce the burden of disease (from the flu) on the community as a whole, at a time when COVID-19 is present.

This winter, our health system is likely to be severely overloaded with COVID-19 patients, and a bad flu season would totally overwhelm it. The last thing Australia needs is a perfect storm of respiratory illness.

How does the flu spread?

The flu is very contagious, meaning that it can be easily passed from one person to another. Each person with the flu is estimated to infect another 1.3 people. COVID-19 is even more infectious with each infected person on average infecting another 2.5 people.

The influenza virus can spread in three ways:

  • Airborne transmission - When infected people cough, talk or sneeze, the flu virus can pass into the air through droplets and then be breathed in by another person
  • Direct contact with an infected person - Such as through kissing, sharing food and drinks, or shaking hands and not washing your hands before touching your face or handling food
  • Contact with contaminated objects - The influenza virus can live on hard surfaces such as door handles, rails and benchtops for up to 24 hours. If you touch these contaminated surfaces or objects and then touch your eyes, nose or mouth, you can catch the flu

Keen to do your bit to track the transmission of influenza? Launched in Australia in 2006 and now with more than 52,000 participants, FluTracking uses the community to track the spread of influenza, giving consistent surveillance of flu-like activity, as well as year-to-year comparisons of timing, attack rates and seriousness. For more information and to sign up, head to the FluTracking website.

Why get vaccinated?

Vaccination helps protect you against the flu. The Australian Government recommends that all Australians aged six months or older are vaccinated to reduce your likelihood of getting the flu.

Getting vaccinated also helps reduce the spread of influenza. The more people in the community who are vaccinated, the harder it is for the flu virus to spread. So by getting a flu shot, you are not only protecting yourself and those close to you, but also the wider community.

Side effects of the flu vaccine are not common, and when they do happen, they are usually mild and short-lived, so there is little downside to getting vaccinated.

A bandaid being put on a girl's arm.

How does the flu shot work?

The influenza virus is constantly changing and mutating, creating new strains of the virus. Every year, there are different strains of influenza virus that are circulating. The flu shot is designed to protect you against the four different strains of influenza virus that are currently circulating in Australia. You need to get vaccinated each year to be protected from that year’s strains.

Unfortunately, the flu shot doesn’t give 100% protection against the flu. But even though some people who were vaccinated still get the flu, their symptoms are generally milder and they are far less likely to develop complications from the flu.

When should I get vaccinated?

It’s generally recommended that you get vaccinated before flu season begins. In a normal year, that’s around mid-May. However, in 2020, people are being urged to get vaccinated as soon as vaccines become available, even if this means they’ll require a booster later on, to ensure they are covered for the whole season. Most general practices are currently stocked with flu vaccines.

From 1 May, you’ll need to have had the flu vaccine before you visit any aged care facilities. In some states, this is being brought forward to the start of April.

In most parts of Australia, flu season is usually between June and September, with the peak number of people being diagnosed in August. But you can catch the flu at any time of year, and the peak period can vary from year to year.

You can get a flu shot at your local GP, community health clinic or Aboriginal Medical Service

Where can I get vaccinated?

You can get a flu shot at your local GP, community health clinic or Aboriginal Medical Service; some pharmacy chains also offer flu shots, although you usually need to book beforehand.

Many workplaces offer flu shots for free, although in 2020 with many people working from home, this will likely be curtailed.

In 2020, flu vaccination providers have implemented infection control precautions against COVID-19 to ensure patients and healthcare professionals are safe throughout the vaccination process.

These include measures such as minimal waiting times, having hand sanitiser on site and keeping a 1.5 metre distance between patients and staff wherever possible. If you are feeling unwell or you have been instructed to self-isolate, you should not attend appointments for vaccination.

What does a flu shot involve?

When you go to have a flu shot, the doctor or nurse will ask you a few questions about your health and previous vaccinations.

Before giving the injection (usually into the arm), they will rub the area of skin with an alcohol swab to sterilise the area.

An age-specific vaccine will be used to give the best, safest protection. In 2020, all vaccines used in Australia will be quadrivalent, meaning they offer protection against all four flu strains currently circulating. For those 65 and over, there is a special adjuvant vaccine which promotes a stronger immune response.

The injection should only take a couple of seconds, and shouldn’t be too painful.

The whole process is usually very quick, and you can get on with your day knowing that you’ve reduced your risk of getting sick this winter.

Am I eligible for a free flu vaccination?

There are some groups of people who are known to be at increased risk of becoming very unwell and more likely to require hospital treatment if they get the flu.

People at increased risk and who are eligible for free vaccination under the National Immunisation Program include:

  • Children aged six months to less than five years
  • People aged 65 years and older
  • Pregnant women (vaccination is safe at any time during pregnancy, and gives protection to both mother and baby)
  • Indigenous Australians older than six months
  • People with certain ongoing (chronic) illnesses who are older than six months – this is quite a large number of people in the community.

Looking for other ways to keep you and your family healthy during this time? From at-home workouts to tips on managing your mental wellbeing during self-isolation, check out the rest of our COVID-19 content series.

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