Alison McCallum: The sooner you get the flu vaccine the better

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If you’ve ever had flu, then it is a fair assumption that you were among the first in line to get your vaccination this winter.

That’s because flu is a nasty, viral illness that is highly infectious and is spread by coughs and sneezes. It can make even the healthiest people feel very unwell for a week or more.

But for anyone over the age of 65, aged two to five, who is pregnant or with a health condition such as diabetes or asthma, flu can be life-threatening. People in the “at risk” groups may already have been invited to receive their flu vaccination and, if they have gone along to get the jab, they will already be benefiting from the protection that the vaccine brings.

But if you haven’t, you need to contact your GP as soon as possible and find out how you can begin to look after yourself and prevent winter and the festive season becoming memorable for all of the wrong reasons.

Flu vaccine is the best protection we have against the virus that is unpredictable and can prove serious.

Each year, public health experts are asked by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to assess the most common strains of flu virus likely to be circulating in winter. They recommend the three different types that the vaccine should target.

The vaccine is changed every year in line with the most common types of the virus. Over the last ten years the vaccine has generally matched well against circulating strains. However, even when it is not so well matched, if you do develop flu, it is likely to be milder and shorter lived than it would have been.

The vaccine works by stimulating the body’s immune system to make antibodies to attack the flu virus.

Antibodies are proteins that recognise and fight off germs, such as viruses, that invade the body.

It means that if you’re exposed to the flu virus after you’ve had the flu vaccine, your immune system will recognise the virus and immediately produce antibodies to fight it.

It takes about ten days for the vaccine to become effective, so the sooner you get your jab the better.

All healthcare workers are recommended vaccination to help protect against seasonal flu and, in NHS Lothian, we make it a priority to ensure that as many of our 24,000 staff as possible are vaccinated.

We know that they are more likely to come into contact with flu as part of their daily working lives and it is the best way to protect themselves, patients, the community and their families.

It also means that whenever winter begins to bite, frontline, essential staff will continue to be able to provide safe and effective patient care and not struggling with their own health.

Professor Alison McCallum is director of public health and health policy at NHS Lothian