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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - UAE hospitals are stocking up on thousands of seasonal flu vaccines as doctors brace themselves for an influx of patients this winter.
The arrival of colder winter months will coincide with the first time medics will handle flu patients and potential Covid-19 cases at the same time.
As patients with both viruses shows similar symptoms, doctors said hospitals said they would begin to prepare early this year.
The vast majority of people with flu would never need hospital treatment, but elderly and those with underlying conditions are often hardest hit.
“We have seen co-infections in both viruses, as the immunity is weakened to the point where patients become vulnerable to both at the same time,” said Dr Fadi Baladi, medical director at hospital group Burjeel and expert in respiratory diseases.
Flu and Covid can exist together, only time will tell how often we will see that
Dr Fadi Baladi
“We need to look how to protect our communities against influenza as this season is going to be hugely challenging with both viruses circulating.
“I expect more people to be aware of the risk of viruses like influenza and a big demand for vaccines compared to previous years because of what’s happened with corona.”
While there are four different influenza viruses, only two human strains cause seasonal epidemics.
Flu vaccines are developed each year, depending on cases recorded during the previous year.
Doctors test for influenza via a nasal swab, similar to Covid-19, but results can usually be seen within minutes inside a hospital setting, instead of 24 hours for a PCR Covid test.
Dr Baladi hopes medics will soon be able to diagnose influenza and Covid-19 from the same sample to make diagnoses and treatment faster for both.
“Everyone around the world is pushing to develop a diagnostic test kit for Covid in a similar to way to how we check for flu,” he said.
“We anticipate a testing kit capable of testing for both viruses from the same sample will be available soon.
“It will be much more practical and make all our lives easier.”
As the influenza virus mutates, virologists and pharmaceutical companies try to stay ahead by predicting how severe an outbreak may be and the most effective vaccines available.
As flu viruses are constantly changing, a vaccine’s composition is also reviewed and updated each year.
More than 100 research centres across 100 nations conduct annual surveillance of the influenza in circulation by testing thousands of patient samples each year.
That research is collated by the laboratories and sent to five World Health Organisation centres in the USA, UK, Australia, Japan and China to find the most effective vaccine for the upcoming season.
“We have already planned to increase our supplies of flu vaccine this winter when it is available, but that is dependent on manufacturers meeting our demands,” said Dr Baladi, who works at the Burjeel Day Surgery Centre on Reem Island, where 550 shots where administered during the last fu season.
“Flu and Covid can exist together, only time will tell how often we will see that.
“If you have both simultaneously, it could be very serious.
“People still do not take influenza seriously enough or know about how severe symptoms can be. “With what has happened with Covid this year, maybe that will change.”
Influenza usually peaks in November and December, with a second peak in February.
Hospitals should start receiving supplies of vaccines in September to distribute in October, as people need to develop antibodies over weeks to protect them against the virus.
While symptoms of flu typically last days, similar signs of fever, persistent cough, sort throat and runny nose can also be seen in Covid-19 patients, but tend to last considerably longer.
Low numbers of flu cases recorded in the southern hemisphere could be a positive sign this year’s season may not be as severe as some fear.
Low flu numbers in southern hemisphere gives medics hope
Australia recorded just 36 flu-related deaths from January to June, down from 430 the previous year.
Meanwhile, Chile recorded 1,134 seasonal respiratory infections during its flu season this year, considerable down from the 20,949 recorded last year.
Increased awareness of contagion risks, such as social distancing and hand sanitation, could have contributed to the success.
Advice to protect against seasonal flu in 2019 was extended to all age groups, rather than just the vulnerable such as young children, elderly or those with existing chronic health conditions.
For the first time, Emiratis and residents in Abu Dhabi could get vaccinated at home by the Department of Health as it encouraged widespread coverage via social media.\
It is important people take responsibility for their health and get the influenza vaccine
Dr Abhilash Nair, Aster Hospital
Although government figures on vaccine coverage was not available for influenza, NMC Hospitals delivered 35,700 of the Dh42 jabs to residents in 2019.
Dr Abhilash Ramachandran Nair, an internal medicine specialist at Aster Hospital, in Dubai's Al Qusais district, expects most hospitals to have begun crisis planning for an outbreak of influenza.
“Hospitals will be receiving new batches of vaccines in the coming weeks, and people will be advised to get the flu shot once it is available,” he said.
“It will become more important this year than previously, as there is still a risk of Covid-19 cases returning in greater numbers later in the year.
“That will put a strain on hospital resources so it is important people take responsibility for their health and get the influenza vaccine.”
Updated: August 9, 2020 12:00 PM
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