There is something about winter that makes ostriches of so many people (except that at present they have to stick their heads in the snow rather than sand). Even after twenty years in general practice, it is something that never ceases to amaze me. What is it that I am speaking of? It is the simple issue of people not wishing to protect themselves against a potentially serious infection, and the infection I refer to is influenza.
As a doctor, it concerns me that less than 50% of the eligible population of North Lincolnshire have had the influenza vaccine this year. Put bluntly, being 'eligible' basically means that you have a significant risk of dying from influenza and its side-effects. So, if that is the case, why do people choose not to protect themselves? Simply assuming that you are super-immune to influenza simply because you have not caught it for so many years doesn't guarantee your survival. I have never had the misfortune to be knocked down by a car; but I still take the precaution of looking both ways before I step into the road; if I do not then one day my folly will catch me out, at which point it will be too late.
In an average winter, there are 25,400 more deaths in England and Wales than at other times of the year. The precise death rate depends on various factors, including the temperature. However, influenza is implicated in many of these deaths. The peak period is between December and March, so we are now entering that time; and as you are aware, it is very, very cold.
Everyone who has not been immunised has the chance of catching influenza. However, amongst those most at risk are children and adults with asthma or diabetes, those with heart disease, anyone whose immunity is reduced (e.g. because of treatment for cancer) people over the age of 65 years, and pregnant women. Anyone within those categories should seriously consider having the influenza vaccine as soon as possible. Carers and health professionals should also be setting the standard by getting themselves vaccinated; by not doing so, they are putting other people at added risk.
The serious side effects of influenza include bronchitis, pneumonia, exacerbation of asthma, convulsions, heart failure, and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain). I am sure that you would agree that none of these sound particularly trivial, and they are not. They are very distressing to the sufferer and the observer, and often cannot be cured. On the other hand, the side effects of the vaccine are usually very mild or non-existent despite all the myth surrounding it.
So, let us not think of the risk of death from influenza in terms of statistics. Consider instead individual human beings known to you. If you are not personally in the high risk categories, do you have a relative or friend who is? Have they been vaccinated against influenza this year? If not, start nagging them to go and get vaccinated. Let us face it, none of us would wish our elderly parents, our children with asthma or diabetes, our husband with heart disease, or our pregnant wife to be one of those 25,000 extra deaths this year. However, without the influenza vaccine, they are at significant risk of becoming one of them. I know I would not want that on my own conscience.
(This article was first published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph on Wednesday 8th December 2010.)