NZ Gears Up for Early Influenza Season


Canterbury and the rest of the country are seeing four times more influenza than is usual for the time of year.

The best protection for you and your whanau is an annual 'flu shot which we have in stock - just $30, still the same price as last year.

Influenza is an interesting illness.  It is a viral infection just like the common cold, but unlike cold viruses it mutates often and our bodies have a hard time making a lasting immune response. Some strains are easier to catch than others and some are more dangerous than others.  Though 'flu is usually most dangerous to those who are already sick, it does strike down otherwise healthy people.  Spanish 'flu in 1918 killed between 3 and 5 percent of the world's population at the time, often young adults - more than twice as many as died in World War 1 and similar to the World War 2 casualty count.  50 to 100 million deaths just from 'flu.

Fortunately, we have not seen anything like the Spanish 'flu since, but every year about 500 New Zealanders die from influenza - more than the road toll.  Each year a panel of experts determines which influenza strains are more likely to spread in our region in the next influenza season and these are then included in the annual 'flu vaccine, which covers 4 different strains of influenza virus.  In years where there is a good match between the 'flu vaccine and the strains we see actually occurring, as is the case this year, 'flu vaccine will reduce the risk of catching influenza by 60%.  It also helps to prevent other people becoming sick by reducing the risk of transmission of the virus.

On average about 25% of people people catch influenza each year, which means that out of every 100 people being vaccinated, about 15 people (or 1 in 8) will NOT get influenza when they might otherwise have done so.  10 will still get 'flu though may not be as sick.

Flu spreads easily at this time of year because people tend to spend more time indoors together, temperatures are lower in the nasal passageways which favours transmission, the humidity is more favourable and there is less ultraviolet light, so the bugs survive longer.  We also tend to ventilate our homes and offices less to keep warm air in. 

People with 'flu are infectious for one to two days before and after symptoms develop.  Most 'flu is transmitted by just breathing - by the time the cough develops, the worst of the infectious period has often passed.

Sadly, alcohol hand rub and vitamins simply have no effect on influenza - it has to be breathed in so clean hands don't help (though they are great for other things!) and supplements are simply a waste of money with to date no evidence whatsoever that any are beneficial in preventing 'flu transmission.

Your best protection is the 'flu shot, which is almost painless and costs just $30.  The vaccine is suitable for all ages over 6 months, though children under 8 need to have 2 half dose vaccines the first year they are given a shot.  The next year only one is required.

'Flu vaccine is most effective from two weeks after it is given so getting it sooner rather than later is often advisable.  It is safe for people with egg allergies (except for the most unusually severe cases) and is recommended if you are pregnant.

'Flu vaccine is free if:

  • You are over 65
  • Pregnant
  • Are using preventer inhalers for asthma
  • Have chronic lung or kidney disease
  • Have heart disease
  • Have active cancer

Finally, you cannot get 'flu or a 'flu-like illness from the 'flu shot.  It is an inactivated virus and so cannot possibly cause sickness (because it is dead!) but a few people each year will tell us that it did.  This is because you catch colds all the time and we give a lot of 'flu shots.  By chance alone, quite a few people will come down with an illness after the shot.  There are many studies that prove that this does not occur more often in those who have the shot than those who don't - it is a great example of a 'post hoc ergo propter hoc' fallacy (this happened after that, so they must be related) but it is not a real effect!  The worst likely side effect is a mildly sore arm for a day or two.




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