Senior citizens, children and people with chronic health conditions are being urged to take the influenza vaccine as the highly-infectious respiratory illness gains momentum this winter.

The Superintendent of Public Health Charmaine Gauci said: “We have not experienced the peak of influenza yet for this year. With an ongoing upward trend, the highest community rate reached last year was of 16 persons from every 100 who visit the family doctor having flu-like symptoms. Currently, the rate is of 10 persons from every 100.”

This is expected to increase, she said.

Influenza occurs every season between October and May, although the peak is usually reached by the end of January, she explained.

Dr Gauci elaborated that influenza typically affected about 20 per cent of the population. Influenza viruses are constantly changing. Therefore, the vaccines are updated upon recommendations of the World Health Organisation.

This is done to protect against the flu viruses that research indicates are most likely to cause illness during the upcoming influenza season, she said.

This year, the health authorities bought 100,000 vaccines and already used over 90,000, she said as she urged people to get vaccinated.

Mater Dei Hospital making use of temporary in-patient areas as part of its winter escalation plan

“People aged 55 and older, people of any age with certain chronic medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease, pregnant women and children younger than five, but especially those younger than two, are more at risk of getting complications if they get influenza and hence the vaccine is essential for them,” she said.

“Pregnant women should get the vaccine to protect themselves and their baby.”

On Monday, Health Minister Chris Fearne told Parliament that almost a quarter of the Maltese population is expected to contract influenza this year – an “exaggeratedly high number” when compared to previous years.

Mr Fearne said the influenza spike was also being expected in other countries.

Earlier this month, Times of Malta reported how Mater Dei Hospital is making use of temporary in-patient areas as part of its “winter escalation plan”, as the number of patients hospitalised with the flu is expected to peak in the coming weeks.

In recent years, come January, patients have had to be moved to other hospitals during the winter peak as a result of lack of space.

Those who wish to get vaccinated can go to health centres between 10am and 5pm - Saturday mornings only.

Common cold or influenza? 

Signs and symptoms Common cold Influenza
Symptom onset  Gradual Abrupt
Fever Rare Usual
Aches Slight Usual
Chills  Uncommon  Fairly common
Fatigue, weakness Sometimes Usual
Sneezing Common Sometimes
Chest discomfort, cough Mild to moderate Common
Stuffy nose Common Sometimes
Sore throat  Common Sometimes
Headache Rare Common

Source: Centres for Disease Control and Prevention 

What is influenza?

Influenza is a highly-infectious respiratory illness caused by the influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat and lungs.

It can cause mild to severe illness and, at times, can lead to death.

People who have the flu often feel some or all these symptoms: fever or feeling feverish or having chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue. Some people may experience vomiting and diarrhoea though this is more common in children than in adults.

Most people who get the flu will recover in a few days. However, some people may develop severe, life-threatening complications such as pneumonia. Influenza viruses are spread mainly by droplets that are dispersed when a sick person coughs or sneezes while being close to other people.

Can I get the flu twice in the same winter?

Yes. When people contract a strain of the influenza virus their body usually builds immunity to that strain.

But you could be unlucky enough to contract a different virus to which you are not immune.

Does layering up help?

How many times have you been told, usually by a parent, to dress up not to catch the flu – and ignored the advice as an ‘old wives’ tale’?

“There is some truth in that advice because the flu virus multiplies more in cold temperatures. And a sudden change in temperature can reduce your immunity,” Superintendent of Public Health Charmaine Gauci said, adding people who have the flu should keep warm and drink plenty of water.

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