October, and it’s time for the annual flu jab.
In the UK the flu jab is offered free of charge by the NHS to anyone over 65 (born before 1 April 1953) or living in a residential care home, or whose job puts them into regular contact with elderly or vulnerable people.
Our local health clinic puts on an annual clinic for flu vaccinations which runs like well-oiled clockwork. Last year we also qualified for a one-time vaccination against shingles.
But just how effective is the flu vaccine? Flu is difficult to combat because the virus mutates rapidly and often, so it’s difficult to predict exactly which strain will be circulating over coming months. This year the NHS has put together a cocktail of antidotes to viruses circulating in Hong Kong and Australia, topped up with B/Phuket/3073.
The flu vaccination programme has had limited success in recent years. In the winter of 2014/15 the adult flu jab was effective in only 29% of cases of Influenza A and 46% of cases of Influenza B (NHS statistics). Last winter the vaccine was almost totally ineffective.
Flu is an unpleasant disease, but usually clears up by itself after a week or two. Even if the vaccines are not wholly effective they can reduce the symptoms and help bring about a swifter recovery. And let’s not forget the great “Spanish Flu” epidemic of 1918/19 which did for over 50 million people worldwide.
Some researchers claim that the first case of Spanish Flu, as it came to be known, was identified in a US army training base in Kansas. It then travelled with infected doughboy recruits to Etaples, in Northern France, an important transit camp for the allied armies containing over 100,000 men.
Other epidemiologists associate the outbreak in Europe with a Chinese variant brought to the Western front along with the huge number of Asian labourers recruited to support the troops – a hypothesis later rejected by the Chinese authorities, who maintain that the disease was already circulating in Western Europe before the the 1918 outbreak.
In any event, once the armistice was signed in 1918 the demobbed troops returned to their countries of origin, unwittingly taking the disease back home. Spanish Flu caused mayhem around the globe.
So why was it called Spanish Flu? At the time of the outbreak wartime censorship was very much still in force, and the authorities in Western Europe and the USA surpressed information about the vast numbers of people infected in order to maintain morale.
Spain was a neutral terriitory in the first world war, and without censorship the papers were free to report the huge scale of the epidemic. This created the false impression that Spain was especially hard hit, and led to the common belief that the virus itself had spread from Spain. Somewhat unfair to the Spanish, then.
The flu virus is highly contagious and transfers easily from person to person. Nowadays, the large numbers of air travellers ensure that any outbreak rapidly becomes a global pandemic. Fortunately we no longer live in the circumstances that led to the severity of the 1918 outbreak, and it is highly unlikely that any new form of the virus will be so severe.
While the flu jab does not guarantee immunity, we shall still be turning up at our local flu clinic next month for the annual ritual. After all, it doesn’t cost anything, and better to be safe than sorry. If you’re not yet convinced, you may wish to visit the NHS website for further details. Oh, and apparently new research indicates that the vaccine is more effective if you have a happy disposition – so don’t forget to smile as the needle goes in.
Or return to our home page for more articles and features.