In the Philippines, the flu season starts in October and peaks from January to February when the temperature drops.
Data from the World Health Organization released in 2018 indicated that influenza alone and influenza related deaths especially pneumonia reached 75,843 or 12.45 percent of total deaths.
The age adjusted death rate is 126.54 per 100,000 Filipinos, putting our country in the top 18 slot for influenza.
According to Dr. Edwin M. Fortuno, Immediate Past President of the Philippine College of Geriatric Medicine, the symptoms of influenza are usually immediate upon exposure to the virus.
“Patients afflicted with flu may have body weakness or feel generalized muscle aches. Frontal headache may be attributed to the nasal congestion or stuffiness that accompanies the disease. Dry cough may be present with throat discomfort noticeably when swallowing liquids or solid foods. Moderate to high grade fever can last for up to five days if there are no complications that accompany the flu. At times, because of the nasal congestion, the eyes can also appear reddish and the face looking flushed,” Dr. Fortuno said in an interview.
Dr. Fortuno said that influenza is usually self-limited as long as there are no associated complications and the patient has an able immune system.
“Once influenza sets in, a secondary bacterial infection may occur in those who are immunocompromised or with weak defense mechanisms. This is brought about by the drying or degradation of the respiratory tract causing bacteria to gain easier access to the necrotic respiratory epithelium,” he said when asked if influenza can cause more serious health problems.
He said that health problems that may be associated with this condition can be sinusitis and bronchitis. The middle ear may also be affected causing otitis media or an infection of the area behind the ear drum.
“A more serious sequelae can be pneumonia which is the inflammation of the lungs because of infection. Viruses aside from influenza, or bacteria commonly Streptococcus, may affect in particular those at the extremes of ages such as the infants or the elderly,” he said adding that a very rare but grave complication of flu usually experienced in children is Reye’s syndrome. The condition is described as a deterioration of the patient’s liver function together with the involvement of the brain. This would eventually make the patient go into coma.
The flu virus changes its configuration annually and this is the reason why the flu shot is given every year, he said.
“Influenza vaccine provides partial immunity with an estimated 85 percent efficacy. The vaccine’s composition is dependent on the strain of the virus that was dominant the previous months,” he shared, stressing that it is recommended that in the Philippines the vaccine be given before the start of the influenza season which is the rainy season.
As with all vaccines being utilized globally, the flu vaccine may also have its side effects.
The vaccine may not be given to persons who have severe allergies to chicken eggs or to any known component of the vaccine. It is also not recommended for persons with fever since fever itself may already be a side effect of the vaccine. It may cause the temperature to increase more.
The Philippine population, Dr. Fortuno said, still has a long way to go in terms of understanding vaccines.
He cited that older people i.e., those who are more than 50 of age are the ones who need it more but are the “most difficult to convince.”
“It is quite puzzling why parents bring their babies or children to be vaccinated by pediatricians. However, these same parents are the ones who are skeptical in being vaccinated. The Covid -19 pandemic has enlightened us that vaccination is the only way to go in preventing vaccine preventable diseases. It is hoped that greater awareness of the benefits of vaccination will be realized by Filipinos as a result of this pandemic,” he stressed.
He said that Filipinos usually are fond of joining the bandwagon.
“If the senior patient can see more of his friends and other family members getting vaccinated, it would be easier for him to get the jab. The primary care doctor or the physician they trust will be in a good position to explain the benefits of vaccination to senior citizens. Media outlets are also good avenues of giving people the right news about flu vaccinations or other vaccine preventable diseases,” he said.
He added: “Science subjects in grade school or high school may be used as mediums of instruction on vaccine preventable diseases like influenza. With Covid-19 around, how can we not be confused if an elderly only is experiencing seasonal influenza?”
He reiterated that it is very important that senior citizens seek medical attention whenever they feel unwell. The symptoms of the flu and Covid-19 are similar albeit with some differences.
Aside from the common symptoms shared by the two diseases described earlier, Covid patients have a more difficult time breathing. This may also be accompanied by chest heaviness and severe muscle pains. They may also have difficulty staying awake or may become confused. Diarrhea occurs because the virus can shed from the digestive tract. In general, patients with Covid-19 infection look sicker and weaker.
“There are some instances when a person may be infected with the influenza and Covid 19 virus simultaneously,” he warned.
He also said that there is no higher dose of the flu vaccine.
“What we have are the trivalent and quadrivalent vaccines each giving protection to three and four strains of the virus respectively. A yearly flu vaccine is important regardless whether it is a trivalent or quadrivalent vaccine,” he said.
“The vaccine is the best way for the patient to be given a layer of protection especially for the frail elderly patients or those with chronic medical conditions such as diabetes mellitus, hypertension, COPD, asthma, transplant and cancer patients and those living with HIV,” he added.
Aside from having the vaccine, an elderly person be protected from influenza and its complications by simply washing their hands.
Dr. Fortuno said that since the virus can survive on surfaces for hours, “it is important that simply washing our hands with soap and water is a major way for flu prevention.”
Another way is by covering the mouth and nose whenever coughing and sneezing can decrease the number of viruses that are expelled to the environment.
“It is also advisable not to touch the face with unclean hands because this provides an easy access for the virus to gain entry into the body,” he concluded.