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Influenza season at a peak in Europe, Malta

The influenza season is currently at a peak. Across Europe, the season started at the end of November, with many European countries reporting cases of confirmed influenza.

This epidemic threshold would lead to doctor’s practices and hospitals experiencing heavy pressure. For Malta, as predicted, we experienced an early start, with the influenza season kicking off at the beginning of October, whereas for the 2016-2017 season, it started off at the end of October.

From mid-December, we saw an increase in flu activity, with community sentinel surveillance showing that for every 100 people visiting a family doctor, nine were suffering from influenza. This exceeds the highest threshold level of last year.

With high levels of the flu across Europe, the activation of contingency plans came in place to ensure healthcare provision to all. Starting the vaccine at an early stage would have helped immensely. This season we had a 28 per cent increased uptake of the flu vaccine compared to the previous year.

Over 90,000 people have been vaccinated in the 2017-2018 season compared to the 70,754 vaccinated between 2016 and 2017. The flu vaccine reduces the risk of catching flu, as well as spreading it to others. Overall, vaccination is the most effective measure for preventing severe influenza in population groups at risk of serious consequences following influenza infection – including the elderly, people with pre-existing chronic diseases and people with immune deficiencies.

Vaccination of pregnant women is the best way to protect newborn infants, especially since the vaccine can only be given after the age of six months. Vaccination of healthcare workers against influenza, especially frontline workers caring for the most vulnerable, should decrease their risk of infecting their patients and themselves at a time when the burden of work on the healthcare system is highest.

One should keep warm and take paracetamol to lower temperature

Apart from vaccination, one can avoid spreading the flu through simple precautions, as it is very infectious and easily spread. A person is likely to give it to others in the first five days of symptoms. To reduce the risk of spreading the flu, it is important to wash your hands often with warm water and soap, use tissues when you cough or sneeze and bin used ones as quickly as possible. Avoid attending the workplace or school when sick with the flu.

Flu symptoms come on very quickly and can include a sudden fever, aching body, feeling tired or exhausted, dry or chesty cough, sore throat, headache, difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, diarrhoea or abdominal pain, nausea and being sick.

To help get better more quickly, one should rest, keep warm, take paracetamol to lower temperature and treat aches and pain and drink plenty of water. A pharmacist can also be of great support and recommend flu remedies to relieve symptoms.

It is advisable for people suffering from influenza to seek advice from their family doctor, especially if symptoms don’t improve after seven days in young children, people aged 65 or over, pregnant women, people with chronic medical conditions, like diabetes or a heart, lung, kidney or neurological disease, and people with a weakened immune system due to chemotherapy or HIV.

The family doctor will assess the patient and refer to further secondary care as required.  Antibiotics are not recommended for the flu, as this is caused by viruses, and will only be required for superimposed bacterial infections as prescribed by doctors. There are antiviral drugs which are prescribed by doctors when indicated that may help prevent flu complications or shorten the severity and duration of flu.

Taking care of oneself this season is important. Stay healthy and prevent the flu through preventive measures, including vaccination. For those who have not taken the flu vaccine, it is still indicated to be taken, as we still have a number of weeks with the flu around us. The vaccine is available from health centres free of charge to all people aged from six months upwards.

Dr Charmaine Gauci is Superintendent of Public Health.

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