The flu vaccine is now available at all UAE health facilities, officials said on Monday. Image Credit: Angel Tesorero/Gulf News

Dubai: Despite a drop in influenza cases in the UAE, health officials on Monday called on the public – especially those who are vulnerable and have co-morbidities – to take the influenza vaccine before the onset of the flu season, for stronger protection against acute respiratory diseases.

The call was made during the launch of the ‘National Seasonal Flu Awareness Campaign 2021’ by the Ministry of Health and Prevention (MoHAP). Held under the slogan ‘Protect Yourself...Protect Your Community’, the campaign is aimed at providing adequate vaccines to inoculate the targeted sectors of the community and to raise the vaccination coverage rate, according to MoHAP.

Dr Hussain Abdul Rahman Al Rand, MoHAP’s assistant undersecretary for the Public Health Sector, said: “This campaign is one of the most important events MoHAP is keen to organise in order to develop the health system’s response to respiratory diseases, strengthen surveillance mechanisms, and improve the results of the strategic indicator of the vaccination coverage rate in accordance with international standards, by making it [flu vaccination] available in its health facilities and updating the preventive services provided.”

Dr Al Rand added that the public should not ignore flu as worldwide an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 people die annually due to complications from influenza.

Now available

The flu vaccine is now available at all health facilities in the UAE and getting the flu vaccine will also mitigate the burdens on the health sector, he said. “The Ministry ensures the implementation the precautionary and preventive measures at all health facilities throughout the campaign. This can only be realised through the strengthening of the international health regulations and the concerted efforts and permanent cooperation among all health authorities, which is necessary to mitigate the burdens on the health sector and give it the time to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Different vaccines

When asked if the flu vaccine is needed for those who have already received all doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, Dr Hend Ahmad Al Awadhi, head of Health Promotion and Educational Section at Dubai Health Authority (DHA), clarified that COVID-19 and influenza are different types of viruses and therefore both require separate vaccines. Although COVID-19 and influenza manifest similar symptoms and both are contagious respiratory illnesses, they are caused by different viruses. COVID-19 is caused by infection with a novel coronavirus first identified in 2019, and flu is caused by infection with influenza viruses.

(L to R) Dr Hend Ahmad Al Awadhi, Dr Hussain Abdul Rahman Al Rand, Dr Farida Al Hosani Image Credit: Angel Tesorero/Gulf News

High risk categories

According to medical experts, influenza is a viral infection that attacks the respiratory system – nose, throat and lungs – and is commonly called flu. For most people, the flu resolves on its own, but sometimes it leads to complications that can be fatal, particularly for children under five years old (especially those under six months); adults older than age 65; pregnant women and women up to two weeks after giving birth; and people with weakened immune systems.

Flu on the decline

Dr Al Awadhi said flu cases in the UAE have seen a marked decline since last year due to COVID-19 health protocols. “People wearing face masks, observing physical distancing, regular washing of hands and other precautionary measures have contributed in the decline of respiratory illnesses,” she told Gulf News.

Dr Al Awadhi added that officials are expecting fewer cases of influenza this year but they are nonetheless pro-actively in promoting the flu jab campaign.

Four-in-one protection

The jab available in the UAE is a “quadrivalent” flu vaccine that is designed to protect against four different flu viruses, including two influenza A viruses and two influenza B viruses.

According to the recommendations of the World Health Organisation (WHO), the target groups for seasonal influenza vaccinations are pregnant women, children under five years, elderly, those with chronic illnesses and health care workers.

There is a quadrivalent flu shot that can be given to babies as young as six months old. However patients who have shown severe reactions to vaccines must consult a physician before taking the jab.

Gap between vaccines

Dr Al Awadhi also noted those who have taken a COVID-19 vaccine should leave a gap of two to three weeks before taking the flu vaccine. The efficacy of the flu vaccine is for one year, and people need to take the jab annually.

Free vaccine

Dr Al Rand said the flu jab is free for all Emiratis and UAE residents with chronic diseases. Those who do not fall under these categories will need to pay a minimal fee of Dh50 for the single shot.