TT medical experts: Influenza vaccine saves lives

The influenza vaccine does not protect you from the common cold but it will prevent you from dying from the flu.

Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh stressed this point on Saturday at a press conference on Influenza at the ministry’s Park Street, Port of Spain office.

To those who say they got sick after getting the vaccine, he said, “The influenza vaccine does not protect you against the rhinoviruses or the other viruses that cause the common cold... It prevents you from landing up in the hospital in an ICU.”

Several other doctors, including Dr Neal Bhagwandass, acting Head of Medicine at the South West Regional Health Authority, backed up Deyalsingh’s statement.

He said it was possible to get the flu after receiving a flu shot but the vaccine would not cause a person to contract the flu. “That is probably coincidence. You were probably brewing the virus while you got the vaccine. But what all the evidence has shown is if you have the vaccine and you sill get the influenza virus, your risk of dying is significantly reduced. The risk of being admitted to intensive care is reduced by about fourfold, so you still derive benefits from the vaccination.”

As of December 31, 2019, there were 37 deaths and 3,434 suspected cases of the flu.

Dr Erica Wheeler, PAHO/WHO Country Representative, said while there was an elevated number of deaths, TT was still within the normal range so there was no need to panic. She said PAHO was monitoring the situation on a weekly basis and would let the country know if there was an outbreak.

Dr Maryam Abdool-Richards, acting Chief Medical Officer, added that TT had a very low case fatality ratio of 0.01 per cent.

She said most of the people who died from the flu were unvaccinated, were in the high-risk groups, and accessed care at a late stage. The high-risk groups include children under age five; adults age 65 and older; pregnant women; people with any chronic illness, especially heart, kidney, or lung disease, including asthma; and people with weak immune systems from disease or medication.

“It is important to note that you should receive the vaccine even if you are not in a high-risk group because you would possibly be in contact with persons in a high-risk group.”

Therefore, she encouraged people to immediately seek medical attention and practise proper isolation methods if they have symptoms, wash their hands regularly, and refrain from sharing personal items like towels or drinking glasses.

Also speaking on high-risk groups, Bhagwandass explained that viral particles go to the lungs, starts multiplying and causes lung infections and other issues.

He said of the people with the flu, 30 per cent would be diabetics. He said people who had diabetes for over ten years usually developed chronic kidney disease, which links to heart disease, which links to strokes.

He added that if people with heart disease and stroke get the flu they are six times more likely to get a heart attack one week after getting influenza A because the flu affects the muscles and arteries of the heart.

“If you get the vaccine and you have heart disease it reduces your risk of getting a subsequent heart attack by about 36 per cent over the next few months, as well as reducing the risk of getting complications of heart disease.”

Dr Adesh Sirjusingh, Director of Women’s Health, also assured that the vaccine was safe for pregnant women in all three trimesters. When vaccinated during pregnancy, not only is the mother protected but antibodies are passed to the unborn baby so it is protected for the first six months of its life.

He said on average one or two pregnant women die from the flu during any given flu season. He said since the flu season began in October, some pregnant women were placed in the ICU because of the flu. Fortunately, the virus was successfully managed so there were no fatalities.

Deyalsingh stressed that influenza was not just a problem in TT but it is a global issue.

Quoting from the Time magazine, he said even with early-season vaccination and a relatively effective vaccine, in the US for the 2018 to 2019 flu season, the CDC estimated 42.9 million people got sick, 647,000 were hospitalised, and 61,200 died of the flu.

“This is not a TT thing. Sixty-one thousand, two hundred people died in the United States last year and they consider that a victory because they anticipated that in a normal flu season 78,400 people would have died.”

He again reinforced the ministry’s position of getting high-risk people vaccinated and urged them to do so before North Americans and Europeans arrive for Carnival and spread the virus further. He also detailed the make up of influenza, its different strains, the fact that it continually mutates to survive, and how scientists try to predict those changes to create vaccines.

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