Kiwis are being urged to get immunised sooner rather than later after last month saw early bouts of flu put patients in intensive care.
National Influenza Specialist Group spokesperson and virologist, Dr Lance Jennings, said last month’s flu cases in South Canterbury and Hawke’s Bay, which had put some people in intensive care, showed influenza circulated all year round and can be serious.
He said so far most of the confirmed cases in New Zealand this year had been caused by the A(H1N1) strain (the same strain that caused the 2009 “swine flu” pandemic) but now circulates each year.
It is the same strain that was the predominant virus in the North American winter – for the first time since 2009 – in a flu season that saw 60 per cent of the flu-associated hospitalisations being in the 18-64 years age group, said Jennings.
“Although this particular virus can lead to serious complications for pregnant women and younger, previously healthy people, the good news is it is covered by the 2014 vaccine.” He said getting immunised now, before the normal flu season peak in June/July, gave people the best chance of being protected.
A special focus of this year’s seasonal influenza immunisation programme is pregnant women and their newborn babies. The NISG says the influenza vaccine has been used for many years in pregnant women, with no safety concerns, and can be given in any trimester.
“Pregnant women are at particularly high risk of severe complications and death from influenza because of the changes that occur to their immune and other systems during pregnancy. Influenza immunisation in pregnancy also offers protection to the newborn baby during the first few months of life,” says Dr Jennings.
Influenza immunisation is free from a GP or nurse until July 31, 2014 for New Zealanders at high risk of complications – pregnant women, people aged 65 and over, and anyone under 65 years of age, including children six months and older, with long-term health conditions such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, respiratory disease (including asthma), kidney disease, and most cancers.
The 2014 vaccine for NZ covers: A/California/7/2009 (H1N1)-like virus, A/Texas/50/2012 (H3N2)-like virus (new), and B/Massachusetts/2/2012-like virus (new).
The NISG says the seasonal influenza vaccine is made using technology with an excellent and long-standing safety record and stresses that immunisation “cannot give you the flu” as it does not contain live viruses.