KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 15 – It’s the holiday season, and some of you will be travelling abroad for a much-needed getaway over the Christmas, New Year, or Chinese New Year periods.
Malaysia will also be seeing an influx of tourists from all over the world during this time. What a refreshing change from the restrictions of the last two years.
Mind you, Covid-19 is not gone yet, and everyone still needs to guard against it. However, we are here to spotlight another looming respiratory illness that could ruin your holidays, not to mention your health as well.
It is none other than influenza. Also known as the flu, this disease is not something to sneeze at (pardon the pun). This is especially if you are aged 65 or older, more so if you have diabetes, kidney disease and/or other chronic health conditions.
The flu can cause acute respiratory distress, pneumonia, as well as a host of other serious complications. It can also increase the risk of a heart attack by more than 10 times in the first seven days of catching the flu. Stroke risk may also double or triple in the first two weeks of an infection.
It is sobering to think that the flu can be associated with heart attack, pneumonia, and stroke, which rank as the second, third, and fourth principal causes of death (after Covid-19) in Malaysia in 2022.
Early Northern Flu Season
In light of this, Prof Dr Zulkifli Ismail, technical committee chairman of the Immunise4Life programme, advises caution if you are planning to visit the northern hemisphere where flu cases are surging at this time.
He explained: “Whereas the flu circulates all year round in Malaysia, temperate countries tend to have their flu season in the winter months — December to March in the northern hemisphere, and June to August in the south.
“This year, however, flu season started early in the northern hemisphere. Cases have been increasing dramatically since October and have already overtaken the number of cases reported this time last year.
“The rise is expected to continue, and we can expect a rough flu season in most northern destinations that are popular with Malaysian vacationers,” he said.
As of December 2, 2022, the United States’ Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimated 8.7 million Americans have been infected, 78,000 hospitalised, and 4,500 died of flu-related causes in what media outlets have called the country’s “worst flu outbreak in a decade”.
Meanwhile, the French Health Authority has declared a flu epidemic in three areas in France, while identifying another five — including Paris and surrounding areas — to be in a pre-epidemic phase.
In its first winter update this year, the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) reported an average of 344 flu patients in hospital per day in a single week — 10 times more than the number seen at the beginning of December 2021.
Over in the Far East, the health authorities of South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan are also expressing concern over the steadily increasing number of flu cases, amid mounting fears of a possible twindemic — the concurrent spread of flu and Covid-19.
Dr Christopher Lee, a consultant infectious diseases physician and a member of the Malaysian Influenza Working Group under the Malaysian Society of Infectious Diseases and Chemotherapy. feels that travellers would do well to understand how flu viruses get around.
He said: “Picture yourself enjoying the crisp, chilly outdoors. Before long, you hastily make your way into a cosy café, joining other patrons warming up over steaming mugs of hot chocolate.
“It all sounds wonderful, except that you are more likely to catch the flu indoors in winter. By coughing, sneezing or speaking, infected persons could send flu viruses circulating inside the crowded and poorly ventilated environment. You might also pick up flu viruses that had settled onto the tabletops, door handles and other surfaces.
“Depending on your proximity to the source and duration of exposure, you might end up with a full-blown bout of the flu, and waste precious holidays in bed or in hospital,” he added.
“Now, let’s say you managed to evade the flu throughout the trip. Don’t be too quick to think you are flying home flu-free.
“On board the plane, you have an 80 per cent chance of getting the flu if there is an infected person – who may or may not have symptoms – sitting one row in front or behind you, within two seats to either side.
“Additionally, flu viruses can survive for up to 48 hours on certain surfaces, including your overhead compartment handle, seat-belt buckle, video screen, food tray, arm-rest and control panel.
“You might try disinfecting these items. However, it would be impractical to disinfect everything you will touch when you land, such as your luggage bag, trolley, the toilet flush, car door handle and so on,” he said.
Flu Prevention Tips for Travellers
“Follow the Covid-19 SOPs when possible. Masking, although no longer promoted in most countries, may help reduce the chances of catching the flu. It is however less effective when those around you are not masked. The additional protection conferred by the annual flu vaccination is therefore recommended to prevent the disease,” said Dr Lee.
“When injected, the vaccine introduces inactivated flu viruses into the body. These have been killed and are unable to cause disease. However, they stimulate your body to produce antibodies that will spring to your defence if you happen to be exposed to the flu. Allow two weeks to reach the desired level of immunity before flying off.”
Like the Covid-19 vaccination, flu vaccination helps prevent severe disease, hospitalisation, and death. Flu vaccination is also associated with a 34 per cent lower risk of major adverse cardiovascular events. There was also an 18 per cent reduced risk of death reported in patients with heart failure.
In people with type 2 diabetes, flu vaccination has been associated with a reduced risk of heart failure by 22 per cent, stroke by 30 per cent, heart attack by 19 per cent, and pneumonia by 15 per cent.
Noting that flu viruses mutate constantly, Dr Lee added that currently available flu vaccines have been updated to effectively fight virus sub-types that are circulating in the northern hemisphere at this time.
“This will help reduce your risk of contracting the disease. The flu vaccination is not only recommended for those travelling abroad but for everyone especially high-risk groups as the importation of flu cases through air travel can result in the spread of flu within the community.
So, if you have not been vaccinated against the flu, now is a good time to get it done. The annual flu vaccination is your passport to healthy holidays. Don’t leave home without it,” he advised.
This article was contributed by the Flu Prevention is An Act of Love campaign under Immunise4Life, a major initiative to promote life course vaccination by the Ministry of Health, Malaysian Paediatric Association, and the Malaysian Society of Infectious Diseases and Chemotherapy.