A flu shot. For illustrative purposes only. Image Credit: Agency

Abu Dhabi: The end-of-year festive season is upon us, but so are the coughs and the sniffles and chills.

To protect oneself from the dreaded flu or even an uncomfortable cold, doctors are urging residents to avail of the widely available flu vaccine.

As in previous years, the flu vaccine is freely available across Abu Dhabi’s public clinics, and is also being distributed at malls to increase its reach.

“We’ve seen many more cases of the flu this year, even though the severity of it has not necessarily been worse. The flu vaccine could help avoid the discomfort of coming down with a cold or the flu, or it can reduce the duration of the flu,” Dr Lyssette Cardona, infectious diseases consultant at the Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, told Gulf News.

Earlier this month, the Abu Dhabi Health Services Company’s (Seha) Ambulatory Healthcare Services, which manages the facilities, offered 9,900 free vaccines to people visiting four major malls in Abu Dhabi city and Al Ain. Similar campaigns may even be organised till the end of the season, representatives have said.

Flu season in the UAE is known to begin around September, and lasts until March of the following year. Doctors believe it peaks here sometime between November and February, especially because more people get together and allow the airborne viruses to be spread. Coupled with the common cold viruses, it can lead to a significant spread of illness among residents, especially among young children, the elderly, people with chronic illnesses and those with lowered immunity.

“The best way to protect oneself is to get the flu vaccine before the start of the season, in August or early September. But people tend to underestimate the importance of the flu vaccine, not realising that it can result in complications,” said Dr Fadi Baladi, internal medicine consultant at Burjeel Hospital Abu Dhabi. He added that residents can still benefit from the vaccine as a shot now could help prevent a bad case of the flu before the season is over.

While the common cold and the flu both produce similar symptoms — chills, coughing, sore throat, sneezing and stuffy nose, the flu can be more debilitating, and is more likely to cause complications that last longer. These can include wheezing, bronchial illnesses and bacterial infections, and a bad case can even require hospitalisation.

“There would have been underlying conditions that allowed the infection to become fatal, otherwise the flu is not known to be so,” Dr Baladi said.

Still, it is always a good idea to stay protected against these very contagious viruses, Dr Cardona said.

“There has been a particularly severe strain in the West this year, but we have not seen it here yet. This is why medical attention is recommended instead of writing off the symptoms. Cold viruses cannot be treated with antibiotics, but there is an antibiotic that can be used to treat the flu if the patient is diagnosed within the first 72 hours,” she added.

Flu vaccine

Flu vaccines cause antibodies to develop in the body about two weeks after vaccination. It is updated every year to tackle the strains of the flu virus that are expected to be most common.

“This year, one widely available vaccine tackles four strains of the virus, including the virus H3N2 that is causing severe cases of the flu. Another vaccine tackles three virus strains, including the H3N2. Even if it doesn’t always help to prevent the flu, the symptoms and complications are reduced,” said Dr Lyssette Cardona, infectious diseases consultant at the Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi.

She added that very few people have side effects from the virus, and that these are minor compared to the discomfort and inconvenience of a full-blown flu.

Young children, the elderly, pregnant women, those suffering from chronic diseases like diabetes or cardiovascular illnesses, and those on immunosuppressant medication should get the vaccines every year, because they are most prone to flu-related complications, said Dr Fadi Baladi, internal medicine consultant at Burjeel Hospital Abu Dhabi.