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Last Chance To Escape Influenza

Media Release
25 August 2004

Last chance to escape influenza

Influenza cases are at a ten year low so far this winter, but experts warn there may be a late start to the flu season.

People still need to be prepared and vigilant to protect themselves against a possible late outbreak of influenza - a winter illness that can cause serious health complications and even death, said Dr Lance Jennings, National Influenza Immunisation Strategy Group (NIISG) spokesperson.

"It's not too late to be vaccinated, especially if you're one of the people most at risk of catching influenza."

Although the Ministry of Health's free influenza vaccination programme for the people who are most at risk -- adults 65 and over and those under 65, including children, with some chronic health conditions -- finished at the end of June, people could still be proactive and ask their GP about paying for the vaccination. It takes about two weeks for the vaccine to give the individual full protection and people are advised to vaccinate sooner rather than later.

The virus usually peaked in late June and early July but there had been very low rates so far this winter, Dr Jennings said. Rates varied from place to place across New Zealand, but Australia was also recording similarly low rates.

He encouraged GPs to maintain awareness for influenza-like illness.

About 46,000 people visited their GP due to influenza-like illness in 2003. The worst areas affected were Otago and South Canterbury. Nationwide hospitalisations for influenza rose from 487 in 2002 to 586 last year.

"All strains of influenza are easily spread from person-to-person and influenza can lead to serious illness. We must remember that it can be life threatening so those at greatest risk still have the chance to take action," Dr Jennings said.

Overseas the influenza season started in quite an aggressive way, however by the end of the season the total reported cases showed little variation from the usual annual rates, said Dr Paul Bohmer, from the National Influenza Immunisation Strategy Group (NIISG).

This year in New Zealand the vaccine has been updated to include the A-Fujian influenza strain. This strain was found in many outbreaks in the United States and Europe during their winter influenza season. The vaccine also includes the A/New Caledonian and B Hong Kong strains.

"We must provide the best possible protection for individuals" said Dr Bohmer, ' so that's why the influenza vaccine we use is changed each year according to international guidelines."


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