Researcher says influenza prevention can add ‘life to years’

The common perception that a flu is something easily shaken off couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, influenza can – and does – kill.

“For an illness that many people confuse with a simple cold, influenza is serious enough that it can lead to hospitalization, disability and death,” says Dr. Janet McElhaney, vice-president of research and scientific director of the Health Sciences North Research Institute.

Patients over the age of 65 are especially at risk, she explains. “Our immune response gets weaker as we get older, and this affects our ability to fight an infection. And many seniors have one or more chronic conditions that can be exacerbated by influenza.”

Seventy-five per cent of seniors have at least one chronic condition, and living with cancer, cardiac disorders, pulmonary disorders or diabetes, for example, can put more stress on their immune system, says Dr. McElhaney. “People are often surprised to learn that the inflammatory response associated with influenza can lead to strokes, heart attacks, pneumonia and even hip fractures, because the inflammation weakens the muscles.”

In addition, influenza carries the risk of catastrophic disability for older people, especially if they need to be hospitalized, she explains. “That means they can lose their independence in basic self-care activities – influenza can get them that much closer to a nursing home.” A pan-Canadian study by the Canadian Immunization Research Network found that 15 per cent of seniors admitted to the hospital for influenza experienced catastrophic disability.

Given the growing evidence about serious health outcomes associated with influenza, why aren’t more people getting vaccinated? “Some people are confident that they are healthy enough to fight the flu,” says Dr. McElhaney. “But even for healthy people, influenza can have serious consequences; the risk goes right across the population.”

Others believe the immunization can have adverse effects, she adds. “A number of respiratory viruses circulate during the fall, when we commonly vaccinate. When people get a respiratory virus, they mistakenly think it’s caused by the flu shot. But that’s not possible – we know that no disease transmission happens with the immunization,” says Dr. McElhaney. “We have also found that vaccinated patients who get the flu are better protected against serious complications compared to those who are not vaccinated. There is a clear benefit.”

Since the “hidden burden of influenza” grows with age, Canadians should make an effort to “add life to years rather than just years to life,” believes Dr. McElhaney, whoseresearch program is called VITALiTY (Vaccine Initiative To Add Life To Years).

Certain measures for increasing quality of life are widely known, but some people may be surprised that Dr. McElhaney ranks immunization alongside factors like a healthy diet, regular exercise and smoking cessation. “Vaccination has to be one of the pillars not only for preventing death, but also for preventing disability and increasing quality of life.”

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