Influenza, commonly called the flu, is a viral infection that attacks your respiratory system. And with temperatures starting to drastically drop, the first influenza cases have already been registered in Germany.
Colloquially, colds and flu are often used interchangeably, but the real flu is usually much more severe and occurs when you suddenly feel very sick and experience a combination of fever, headaches, limb pains and a dry cough.
And though it cannot be predicted how many cases will arise in Germany, nor can it be predicted how serious these cases will be, one thing is for sure: the influenza is definitely coming.
In Australia, the most recent influenza season saw two and a half times as many cases as in the same period last year. People were seriously ill and some non-elderly people died from their flu illnesses, according to media reports.
Can Germany learn a thing or two from the severity of the recent influenza in Australia?
“We can derive very little from the development abroad,” said Ole Wichmann, head of the vaccination prevention department at the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) in Berlin. The flu can be very different from country to country as different virus variants can circulate, Wichmann added.
Vaccination is the best protection we have, even though its effectiveness is “not optimal,” said Wichmann.
One reason for the relatively low effectiveness of the flu vaccination is that the recommended composition of the vaccine comes from the World Health Organization (WHO) with a lead time of several months, since production of the vaccine in huge quantities takes time.
This, in turn, means that the vaccine recommended by WHO risks not corresponding optimally to the viruses circulating at a later date.
Still, because the influenza is a very common illness that can sometimes be severe, the department which develops vaccination recommendations for Germany at RKI recommends people from particularly vulnerable groups be vaccinated. This includes people aged 60 and over, residents of nursing and elderly homes, the chronically ill such as diabetics, pregnant women and medical staff.
“According to our analyses, this could mean that an average of more than half a million cases per year could be prevented,” said Wichmann.
October and November are considered the best time to get vaccinated – before the flu epidemic really takes off. Contact your local doctor if you're interested in getting the flu shot; influenza vaccination can be performed by any doctor though it's usually carried out at general medical practices.
So far, vaccination quotas in Germany have fallen short of international targets. The figures are lower for medical staff and pregnant women than for seniors, according to Wichmann.
This is despite the fact that medical personnel are exposed to an increased risk of infection due to contact with patients. Pregnant women moreover have a reduced immune system and thus are at high risk of health complications such as pneumonia.
“A previous survey showed that many pregnant women underestimate the dangers of influenza while overestimating the potential side effects of vaccination,” Wichmann said. But there are “no indications” for an increased risk of side effects in pregnant women with the flu shot, he added, stating that vaccination is recommended for all pregnant women from the second trimester onward.
Otherwise, for those who aren’t planning on getting the flu shot at all this season, doctors recommend to wash your hands regularly.