The flu can make us miserable. Fevers, cough, congestion and fatigue make even the nicest winter morning seem dark and gloomy. Muscle aches, joint pains and a splitting headache can leave us trapped in the house and stuck in bed. A terrible way to spend the winter months, especially with Christmas around the corner! The flu is caused by a virus (‘Influenza Virus’) that peaks in a seasonal pattern during the winter months and spreads from person to person through sneezing, coughing or touching contaminated surfaces.
Unfortunately, people with intellectual disabilities (ID) are more likely to become very sick if they get the flu and they have a higher risk of developing flu-related complications. Moreover, those with medical conditions underlying their ID, such as cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome and metabolic disorders, again have an increased risk of hospitalisation and life-threatening complications. With this in mind, prevention is the best medicine.
The best way to prevent the flu is to get the flu vaccine every year. Television advertises, ‘Get the vaccine, not the flu’, yet uptake is still relatively low in certain risk groups. In Ireland during the 2008/09 flu season, vaccine uptake in Ireland for the over-65 age group was brilliant (70-1%). However, a study in 2005/06 estimated that of those aged 18-64 years and eligible for vaccination (due to co-morbidities such as ID), there was an uptake of only 28%. Worse again, studies from around the world have shown that there is an influenza vaccine uptake of only 20-25% for those with intellectual disability.
In certain groups, the vaccine can prevent illness in 70-90%, and reduce severe illness and complications by up to 60%. Considering this, we must strive to improve vaccine uptake for individuals with ID this winter. It is also vitally important that we, as parents, carers and staff working alongside people with ID, have the vaccination as well to prevent infection and transmission of the virus during the 2013/14 flu season.
Apart from the vaccine, there are other simple ways to decrease the spread of the flu virus. Sneezing into a tissue rather than the hands, not touching eyes, nose and mouth, and frequent hand washing (with soap) improve personal health and hygiene. Also, by avoiding close contact with those who already have the flu and staying at home if one is sick can help stop the spread of the virus.
Influenza is a potentially very serious illness, yet unlike many others, it can be prevented! Immunisations are aimed at high-risk groups where outcomes and complications can be severe. Intellectual disability falls into one of these high-risk groups—so ensure that your loved ones (and yourselves) get the vaccine this winter.