During the pandemic, a strange thing happened. In between rushing to treat all the Covid-19 cases, doctors noticed that something was different – unlike in previous years, hardly anyone was seeking care for the flu. The ‘why’ wasn’t a hard question to answer: the raft of public health measures put into place to fight Covid-19, from mask wearing to social distancing to hand sanitising, made a real difference. They impacted not just Covid infection rates, but other common infectious diseases as well.
Now, as South Africa lifts mask mandates and we get back to normal, doctors anticipate another return to normal – of flu infection rates. Before the pandemic, influenza (the flu) killed between 6,000 and 11,000 people every year in South Africa. Not everyone is equally at risk – about half of all flu deaths in South Africa occur in the elderly (aged 65+) about another third occur in HIV-infected people, due to their compromised immune systems. Despite different risk profiles in the population, getting or spreading the flu is not something any of us want to do, so here are some helpful tips from the Kena Health team for flu season.
1. Get your annual flu shot
As with Covid, vaccination is the best way to prevent the flu. Every year, scientists isolate the most common strains of flu (don’t forget, viruses evolve all the time) and create a vaccine for those. This is why you need to get one every year, as new strains might be prevalent that your old immunity won’t protect you against. The flu shot is available to everyone, but it is especially relevant for people at risk of severe cases, such as the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. Healthcare workers and those who work in crowded work environments are also encouraged to get their annual vaccination.
2. Practice good hygiene
Thanks to Covid, we are all now very familiar with good hygiene practices. The good news is that what works for Covid also works for the flu: wash your hands regularly, cough or sneeze into a tissue or your elbow, and stay home (social distance) if you feel ill. Good ventilation helps too, especially in crowded spaces.
3. Be aware of risk factors
Something we don’t often think about when it comes to the flu are risk factors, but they’re important to understand for both ourselves and our families. Broadly speaking, you’re at risk for a severe case of the flu if you are elderly (aged 65+), have a compromised immune system, or have existing chronic conditions.
A compromised immune system could be the result of a number of causes, such as being HIV positive, having an auto-immune disease, undergoing treatment for cancer, or even being on medication that suppresses your immune system because of an operation like an organ transplant. Likewise, there are numerous chronic conditions that can be complicated by contracting the flu and result in a trip to the hospital.
4. Get help from a professional
Because flu-like symptoms are common to both viruses and bacterial infections, what feels like the flu may not always be the flu. This makes it important to consult a medical professional when you’re feeling sick, to avoid misdiagnosing yourself and make sure you’re taking the right medication. This helps reduce the duration of the illness if it’s not the flu, and gives you the information you need to avoid spreading it to other people in your household or community. For example, while most upper respiratory tract infections are caused by a virus and don’t need antibiotics, some are bacterial and can become much worse if misdiagnosed. Similarly, antibiotics aren’t required for treating the flu, which makes talking to a doctor key in getting the right treatment.
For those of us who don’t like to go to the doctor for ‘just the flu’, telemedicine apps like Kena Health are ideal – they allow you to consult with a qualified nurse or doctor from home, at a fraction of the cost of a GP.
If you want to learn more, or want personalised health advice to assess your risk profile for the flu, just start a consultation on the Kena Health App. Kena isn’t just for treatment – our clinicians are great at giving advice, answering questions and helping you understand your health. We’re also there if you need a sick note for work or school. It can be frustrating when the flu stops you going to work – but it’s also important that you don’t go if you’re ill. If you are, you can talk to a nurse or doctor on Kena and get a sick note sent directly to your phone.
Covid has been such a large presence in our minds recently that, as we go back to normal, it’s worth remembering that it isn’t the only infectious disease out there that has a broad impact on society. Ultimately, good hygiene practices and appropriate caution continue to be important for our health.