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Influenza Disease on the Increase Overseas

27 November 2003


International Influenza Disease on the Increase Overseas

New Zealanders heading off to Europe or North America should consider getting an influenza vaccination before they go, particularly if they have an ongoing illness.

The Ministry of Health warns that while New Zealand is heading into summer, the reverse is true in the Northern hemisphere where, as winter approaches, they are now facing increasing influenza activity due to a particularly severe influenza strain.

The National Influenza Immunisation Strategy Group¡¦s Dr Lance Jennings says health authorities in the UK have alerted local GPs to be on the lookout for signs of influenza and are recommending immunisation for groups at high risk of complications or death from the disease. Reports from the United States suggest it too is facing an earlier than usual outbreak of influenza.

The Ministry¡¦s Dr Paul Bohmer says New Zealanders vaccinated earlier this year against influenza will have some protection from the northern hemisphere strain, but they should seek medical advice about the need for revaccination, especially if they have an ongoing illness. Influenza illness can be particularly severe or life threatening for people with ongoing medical conditions such as heart disease, stroke, bronchitis, asthma, diabetes, kidney disease, most cancers and other conditions affecting the immune system.

Young children also are especially susceptible to influenza because most have had little past exposure to the virus.

Influenza is a disease that never fully disappears. It circulates all year round in tropical countries and affects countries with temperate climates, like New Zealand, in the winter months.

Vaccination is the best way for people to protect themselves against influenza.

Dr Jennings says the A/Fujian strain, currently causing the outbreaks in the United Kingdom, has been incorporated into the vaccine that will be available in March prior to next year¡¦s winter influenza season here.

It is important that people 65 years or over and children and adults with ongoing medical conditions should be immunised against influenza each year and that this should be done when the vaccine becomes available, usually in March.

Dr Bohmer says vaccination is required every year as the vaccine is updated annually to reflect current circulating strains.

ENDS

Questions and Answers

What is influenza? Influenza is a highly infectious illness caused by a virus.

What are the symptoms? Influenza usually causes two or three of the following symptoms:
- Sudden onset of fever
- Aches and pains
- Severe fatigue
- Headache
- Cough
- Sore throat
- Stuffy or runny nose

How is it spread? Influenza is very infectious. It spreads through the air by coughing, sneezing and on hands, cups, cutlery or on other objects that have been in contact with an infected person¡¦s mouth or nose. Adults are infectious for five days after symptoms occur and children for seven days.

How long does it last? Symptoms usually start to clear up after five to seven days.

How do people tell the difference between the early symptoms of influenza and a bad cold? Influenza will leave you ill for up to 10 days usually suffering from a high fever and requiring bed rest. Patients can also suffer from shivering attacks, muscular pains, headaches, a dry cough, possible vomiting and there can be complications like pneumonia. A vaccine is available.

You can tell when you are suffering a cold as the symptoms are much milder lasting only 2-4 days. High fever is less common and shivering attacks and severe headaches are rare. Muscular pains and vomiting are infrequent and the cough will be less severe. There is no vaccine available.

How safe is the vaccine? The immunisation will not give you influenza because the vaccine contains killed virus. Most people have no reaction to the injection. Occasionally the place where the injection was given is red or sore. Some people may fell unwell for a day or two. These are normal responses to the immunisation.

Does it actually work? Yes. For those at high risk, influenza vaccination reduces hospitalisation by 50 percent and mortality by 70 percent. In general the vaccine is 70-90 percent effective in preventing influenza in healthy adults.

What is the Ministry of Health and the National Influenza Immunisation Strategy Group (NIISG) doing to encourage eligible people to be vaccinated? The main role for NIISG and the Ministry of Health is to increase public awareness of influenza and its seriousness. NIISG has developed a variety of user-friendly resources for the public, some of which address myths that are still barriers to people taking up this free vaccination. These are available wherever you get vaccinated.

NIISG has also given health providers resources to help them promote vaccination to all at-risk groups, and established links with relevant organisations such as the Asthma Society and the Diabetes Society to ensure they are given information and resources to pass onto their members.

How many free vaccinations were provided last year? About 300,000 people were vaccinated at a cost to the health sector of some $5,262,000 (incl. GST) in 2002.

Summary of 2002 influenza statistics During the 2002 influenza season, 3159 consultations for influenza-like illness were reported from a national general practitioner surveillance system. It is estimated that influenza-like illness affected nearly 35,000 New Zealanders during 2002, compared with an estimated 48,000 in 2001. Rates of illness were similar throughout the country and the highest in South Auckland, Bay of Plenty and South Canterbury.

ENDS

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