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Young children under five are also at high risk of infection.
Dr Zulkifli (second from left) and Dr Siti Hasmah at the campaign launch. With them are Institute of Respiratory Medicine director Dr Nurhayati Marzuki (left) and Malaysian Influenza Working Group co-chairman Professor Dr Yasmin Abdul Malik (right).

A flu awareness campaign by an expert-driven programme hopes to increase vaccination rates, writes Syida Lizta Amirul Ihsan.

NOT all flus are equal. Some are mild, but some can kill, especially if they afflict the very young and the old. All of us can take the flu vaccine, but the uptake remains staggeringly low.

Immunise4Life(IFL) technical committee chairman Datuk Dr Zulkifli Ismail says people do not see the need to vaccinate because they confuse the flu – caused by influenza viruses, with the common cold — caused by rhinovirus and other viruses.

“This is a deadly mistake because unlike the cold which is harmless, the flu can kill,” he says.

“Both infections have similar symptoms like cough, sore throat and runny nose. Problems occur when people don’t realise they have the flu when other symptoms like fever, muscle or body aches, headache, fatigue, vomiting and sometimes diarrhoea, emerge.

“Some infected persons may overcome it and recover, but others may not. Depending on their age and pre-existing health conditions, they may develop severe illnesses and potentially fatal complications including inflammation of the lungs, heart, brain or muscle tissues, even multi-organ failure.”

FLU PREVENTION CAMPAIGN

A concern over poor awareness of the flu led the IFL to organise the Flu Prevention is an Act of Love campaign, launched by its programme patron Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohamad Ali.

Dr Siti Hasmah points out that the flu is particularly dangerous to pregnant women, children under 5 years, adults over 65 and those with health conditions like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

“It is vital for everyone in these high-risk groups to be vaccinated against the flu,” she says, adding that she and her husband, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, make it a point to get their flu vaccinations every year.

The campaign is organised by IFL, in association with the Malaysian Influenza Working Group and the Vaccination is Protection initiative.

IFL is a major community education programme involving the Ministry of Health Malaysia, Malaysian Paediatric Association and Malaysian Society of Infectious Diseases and Chemotherapy.

Dr Zulkifli says IFL is confident that Dr Siti Hasmah’s heartfelt messages in the videos on its website will resonate deeply with the Malaysian public and help them understand that vaccinating their young children or ageing parents against the flu is an act of love.

“Her efforts are complemented by other related content. These include educational articles, expert videos, as well as real-life flu stories or testimonials from an older couple and a social media influencer whose child was hospitalised after contracting the disease.

“We hope to appeal to the public’s minds and hearts through a combination of storytelling, personal advocacy, expert advice and medical information,” he says.

WEAKENED IMMUNE SYSTEM

Malaysian Influenza Working Group chair man Professor Dr Zamberi Sekawi says the World Health Organisation estimates that about one billion flu cases occur every year, of which three to five million are severe, resulting in up to 650,000 deaths.

“Older persons account for 90 per cent of all flu-related deaths. Their lungs and immune systems have weakened with age, making them susceptible to secondary infections like pneumonia.

“Those with certain chronic conditions are also more likely to develop a stroke, heart attack, diabetic emergencies and respiratory failure as a result of the flu. Getting vaccinated significantly reduces this risk.”

He says young children who are hospitalised for influenza have a high chance of getting admitted into intensive care, experiencing respiratory failure, developing bacterial co-infection, or even dying.

“The risk is greater for those with chronic health problems like asthma and Type-1 diabetes. Vaccination prevents them from catching the disease from their schoolmates and passing it on to their siblings and parents,”

Dr Zamberi says that we should be vaccinated annually. “Flu viruses are constantly mutating and tend to circulate during the winter months in temperate countries before spreading to the rest of the world, due to travelling.

“Getting a flu vaccination annually helps ensure we are protected from the latest circulating viruses. Don’t think you only need to be vaccinated before going abroad. The flu will find its way to our shores and lasts all year round in our climate.”

Sanofi Pasteur Malaysia and Brunei general manager Camille de Lataillade says many people remain unaware of the severity of the flu and its consequences, especially in high risk groups.

“In Malaysia, vaccination in adults is very low, at only two per cent, and while most adults prioritise vaccination for their children, elderly parents are also at risk of infection and complications.”

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