According to the Ministry for Health, 10-20% of New Zealanders are infected with influenza in any given year. Influenza immunisation, though, can be a great defence and more than one million New Zealanders get immunised against influenza each year – something the government is keen to promote and extend.
“By being immunised, we not only protect ourselves, but we help to ensure we don’t pass on influenza to our families, friends and colleagues,” said Health Minister Jonathan Coleman at the launch of the 2016 influenza campaign.
“This year the influenza vaccine has two new strains to ensure New Zealanders are better protected this winter from the strains of influenza circulating around the world.”
What is influenza?
The flu, or influenza, is not actually a single disease, but is instead a diverse family of viruses which can affect not just people, but also other mammals and also birds. You might remember stories about bird flu or pig flu from a few years ago – these are both the flu in a different form. This family of viruses is highly contagious and changes very quickly and typically waxes and wanes seasonally, with the greatest frequency of cases typically in the winter months.
The flu is very easily spread, particularly through the air via coughing and sneezing, or any surface which is covered by the minute vapour coughing and sneezing produces. This is why it is so important to cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze and to thoroughly wash your hands, especially when you’re sick. The disease can even be transmitted between species, like birds, though infections from other people are far more common.
Symptoms of the flu can vary, but typically includes a fever, coughing, sneezing, muscle or head-aches, and runny noses. The disease may at first appear similar to the common cold, but symptoms of the flu are usually more severe and last longer. Recovery in healthy adults usually takes a week or two, but young children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems can potentially face longer illnesses, and may even develop secondary infections, like pneumonia, which have the potential to be life-threatening.
Who is at risk of contracting influenza?
Anyone can catch the flu, but some people are more at risk than others. This includes:
- Those with long term health conditions such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, respiratory disease, kidney disease;
- Those with cancer;
- Pregnant women;
- People aged 65 and over
Influenza immunisation free for some
Influenza immunisation is free for New Zealanders at high risk of complications, through their general practice. Many employers also provide free vaccination for their staff. Those who aren’t eligible for free immunisation can purchase it from general practices and some pharmacies.
“One of the ongoing challenges of the influenza programme is improving immunisation coverage for groups who are eligible for free immunisation, particularly among people with ongoing medical conditions,” said Dr Coleman.
The vaccine will be funded for eligible patients until the end of July. Similar to previous years, a total of 1.2 million doses are expected to be distributed.