India witnessed 778,070 cases of severe acute respiratory infection in 2020 between April and June alone.
Fortunately, the country has historically overcome various infectious diseases with the help of vaccinations. Influenza, one such vaccine-preventable disease, is a seasonal viral respiratory infection that spreads easily from person to person. In India, seasonal influenza or ‘flu’ outbreaks are typically seen during the monsoons or peak winter, with slight regional variations.
Influenza affects people of all ages. Health workers and people with comorbid conditions, like diabetes, kidney, heart or liver diseases, asthma, blood disorders, and other immunocompromised individuals are at higher risk of complications.
Prevention is thus key. Vaccines for children as well as adults including those at-risk are the most effective strategy to avoid influenza infection and related adverse effects. A flu shot reduces the risk of flu-related complications by around 70% to 90%, and WHO thus recommends annual influenza vaccination with the latest prevailing flu strain, especially for all high-risk groups.
While flu shots for children are far more common, the uptake of influenza vaccination amongst adults, even those with comorbid conditions like diabetes and hypertension, is low. For instance, even in a country like the United States, adult influenza vaccination coverage was 46.1% (during 2017-18) 7 and similarly, India too has long way to go in increasing immunization uptake, more so for adults with underlying conditions.
For instance, influenza vaccinated patients with diabetes saw a 56% reduction in any complications as compared with unvaccinated patients with diabetes, along with a 54% reduction in hospitalizations. With India considered to be the diabetic capital of the world – with more than 74 million people with diabetes – enhanced vaccination coverage would greatly benefit the population.
Commenting on the need for increased influenza vaccination uptake, Dr. Rajesh Swarnakar, Consultant Pulmonologist, Getwell Hospital, Nagpur said, “In Maharashtra, we see about thousands of cases of adults with influenza. Of these, 5% facing severe complications had chronic conditions. Vaccines are the safest and most effective option available to avoid such infections.”
Dr Jejoe Karankumar, Director, Medical Affairs at Abbottcommented, “At Abbott, we are committed to helping people stay healthy at every stage of their lives. Raising awareness about the need for annual influenza vaccination not just for children, but also at-risk adults, is key to ensuring greater protection against infection across the population. To ensure ease and convenience while getting a flu shot, flu vaccination services are also offered in the comfort of people’s homes. Influenza is a vaccine-preventable illness, and the benefits and simplicity of prevention outweigh the complications of illness later.”
Influenza strains mutate every year, with WHO constantly updating their guidelines on the virus strain currently in circulation. It is important for not just children but adults, especially those with underlying conditions, to get their annual influenza vaccination, in consultation with their doctor.
The current global context also continues to create confusion for many, given the similar symptoms of influenza and other respiratory infections – including fever, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, headache, runny nose, muscle pain and more. It is important to note that COVID-19 vaccination will not protect against the flu, and vice versa. Flu vaccines and COVID-19 vaccines can be given at the same time and do not impact the safety profile or effectiveness of the other.
An adult immunization Centre set up in India in January 2018 and recent immunization recommendations shared by the Association of Physicians of India serve as targeted measures helping to raise awareness and Information Note ensure greater vaccine coverage. Vaccinations offer layered protection to one’s family, friends and members of the society. By scaling nationwide immunization coverage, individuals can avoid flu-related complications while supporting health systems.