Flu jabs - the facts

THE FLU virus is a cunning little beast – impossible to pin down. There are lots of different strains and, even worse, like a Harry Potter transfiguration or a Twilight shape-shifter, flu viruses mutate from year to year.

Every spring, the World Health Organisation (WHO) identifies which strains are most likely to wreak havoc the following winter. There are three main types of flu, known as A, B or C and each type has dozens of sub-types. It is these sub-types that the flu vaccine targets. This winter, the strains most likely to cause illness are: an A/California/7/2009 (H1N1)-like virus; an A/Perth/16/2009 (H3N2)-like virus and a B/Brisbane/60/2008-like virus. The H1N1 strain of the flu is the same strain of flu behind the 2009 swine flu pandemic, and it also caused more than 450 deaths in England last year. But H1N1 is no different from other strains of flu in regards to the principles of creating a vaccine to protect against it. Its inclusion in this year’s seasonal flu jab poses no additional risk. It is included because it is likely to be one of the major flu strains circulating in Britain this winter.

Once the WHO has identified the most dangerous strains, scientists get to work manufacturing millions of doses. They mass produce the viruses in hens' eggs because these provide the perfect breeding environment.

In order to be granted a licence for use in the UK, a flu vaccine needs only to be 60 per cent protective. In reality most flu vaccines protect more like eight in ten people but that would explain why potentially thousands of people who have the jab each year still come down with flu. However, leading flu specialists insist vaccination does save lives and while no medical treatment of any kind can be proved to be 100% safe and while vaccines of any type entail some small element of risk, flu vaccines have excellent safety records.Tthe most common reactions are a sore arm or possibly feeling hot. It is also important to note that flu vaccines cannot give you flu. This year’s seasonal flu jab is no different to any other in terms of the risk it presents and has been thoroughly tested and approved for use across the UK.

The flu jab is offered to people in at-risk groups. These are people, such as pregnant women and the elderly and the chronically sick, who are at greater risk of developing serious complications if they catch flu.

But there are simple measures you can take to lower your risk of catching flu. Viruses lurk on skin and household surfaces, so wash your hands regularly especially if someone coughs or sneezes near you; before eating and when you come in from outside.

Wipe clean commonly used areas, such as kitchen worktops and door handles, with an antibacterial cleaning product and avoid non-essential travel and large crowds if possible.

Some studies show that the natural cold remedy echinacea can reduce the risk of colds and flu, but the evidence is inconclusive. As for scaring it off by eating a hot curry, well it may help flush the virus out of the system by making the eyes and nose stream – then again it may just be a good excuse to give your tastebuds a treat!

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