Is Flu Vaccination Useful Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic?

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As concerns mount with growing evidence from several countries that a second wave of COVID-19 infection can happen, experts continue to fire up the online chatter on whether there is a need for patients to have a flu shot. 

Since the influenza virus and COVID-19 share similarities in infection transmission and symptoms and is a respiratory illness, can flu vaccination really help to lower the risks? What would happen if a patient is infected with both? Here, our Infectious Disease Specialist, Dr. Lam Mun San, weighs in on these questions.

Need and Urgency

With just two months to go before the year end flu season typically peaks, medical experts are encouraging many to get their flu shots, especially if you have risk factors for getting the flu and its complications. 

According to Dr. Lam, flu vaccination is highly recommended at this time.

“We are basically sailing in uncharted waters as to how influenza and COVID-19 co-circulation will behave. Experts are fearing a ‘Twindemic’ at the year end when flu season generally peaks,” she explained. The Northern Hemisphere winter is generally associated with a flu epidemic.

Most experts also maintain that this can be beneficial for individuals who are more susceptible. For instance, those who are over 65 years of age or have a pre-existing condition that can weaken their immune system. Other concerning factors also include asthma, heart diseases, lung diseases and disorders of the liver, kidney or endocrine system. 

Elaborating on the urgency, Dr. Lam said: “There will be a challenge to distinguish flu symptoms from COVID-19 symptoms as both diseases circulate simultaneously. Getting flu shots will hopefully reduce the background noise.” Patients with co-infection are expected to have worse outcomes, as expected.

Moving Forward

If you are scheduling one now, Dr. Lam has an additional advice: “Patients with symptoms should not get their vaccinations in vaccination centers as these places can have a higher transmission of potential COVID-19 or flu to other high risk patients.” They should be well when they get their vaccinations.

As to whether there is an uptake of patients taking the vaccination while the COVID-19 pandemic is still on, Dr. Lam cites a few reasons but the main reason has been a general reluctance to visit clinics / hospitals during the pandemic.  

“Firstly with the Circuit Breaker and Phase Two (post-Circuit Breaker) periods, there are fewer cases of respiratory illnesses including flu due to less mingling. Secondly, people are hesitant to visit their doctors or healthcare facilities in case they catch diseases from these places. So, yes, we are seeing fewer patients for flu shots.” 

As advised under the MOH’s National Adult Immunization Schedule, one dose of influenza vaccination is recommended annually or per flu season. The latest MOH guidelines advised all high risk patients to take the current Northern Hemisphere flu vaccine and also the new Southern Hemisphere vaccine which will become available in April / May 2021*. In addition, all dormitory workers are also included in this group.

*As per MOH Advisory dated October 16, 2020.

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This Article Was Reviewed By:

Dr. Lam Mun San has an interest in immunization for vaccine preventable diseases. Dr. Lam is the founding partner of the Infectious Disease Specialists Group. She was Head, Travellers’ Health & Vaccination Clinic at Tan Tock Seng Hospital before she left for private practice in 2000. She remains as a visiting consultant for infectious diseases at Singapore General Hospital.

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