Arm yourself against the flu

by | August 24, 2011

For those over the age of 50 and who have diabetes, it is vital to get a flu shot to reduce the risk of hospitalisation and death.

BY: Eleanor Yap 

Diabetes patients are advised to get their annual flu shots as like other patients with chronic diseases, they are at higher risk of serious health complications. The flu/influenza can cause them in particular to be sick longer, possibly hospitalised or worse, die from the contagious infection.

In Singapore, one out of 11 people aged 18 to 69 has diabetes with diabetes being the fifth most common medical condition diagnosed. However, the flu vaccination rate among persons with diabetes remains low and this concerns many doctors island-wide.

In a local study of 307 diabetes patients, close to 70 percent had never received a flu vaccination, although about 80 percent knew they were at moderate or higher risk for influenza-related complications. It is proven that having a flu shot in persons with diabetes can significantly decrease influenza and pneumonia-related hospitalisations, as well as influenza-related mortality.

Each year in Singapore, there are about 630,000 cases of influenza resulting in one to two deaths. Data also shows that influenza vaccination can protect against 315,000 cases of influenza, 258,000 sick visits, 157,000 lost days from work, and 2,100 hospitalisations from pneumonia in the elderly. 
Besides persons with diabetes, the Ministry of Health recommends flu vaccination for other high-risk patients such as the elderly and those suffering from chronic diseases. A severe case of influenza, if not treated early, can lead to pneumonia, bronchitis, sinusitis, ear infection and meningitis (inflammation of the lining covering the brain).

Agelessonline finds out more about the study from Dr Kevin Tan, vice-president of the Diabetes Society of Singapore, and what it means:

In the local study, what is the breakdown on participants who were over the age of 50 who have diabetes and who didn’t receive a flu vaccination?

There were 196 participants who were over the age of 50 years old.

What were the reasons particularly for those over the age of 50 for not getting the vaccination?

Across the board, of those who had never been vaccinated, 54.9 percent did not think that a vaccination is necessary and 48.8 percent never thought of getting vaccinated. Many participants were also never advised on having a vaccination.

About 20.7 percent of respondents felt that they did not need the vaccination because they are healthy, and another 15 percent did not believe that a vaccination can provide full protection from the flu. Lastly, about 10 percent of respondents said a vaccination is too expensive. From the study, we also found that individuals with higher incomes were more likely to have been vaccinated as compared to those with lower incomes. 

How much is a vaccination and when should seniors get it? How many weeks before they travel? Where can they get vaccinated?

The traditional flu seasons are during the months of April to July and November to January. Vaccinations take two weeks to build immunity so it’s recommended for Singaporeans, particularly those in the high-risk group such as persons with diabetes, to go for their vaccination ahead of time. Vaccinations are available in clinics, polyclinics and hospitals. The price of flu vaccines to patients is about $30, but it varies from private to public clinics or hospitals.

Flu vaccines is also recommended for persons with chronic medical conditions such as chronic lung or heart disorder, kidney disease, severe anaemia or immune deficiency. Also, if seniors are currently residing in a nursing home or other long-term care facilities, or caring for those who are at high-risk of developing flu complications, it is recommended that they too receive flu vaccines.

Could you share how effective flu shots are nowadays and that each year they are further updated? Are there any side effects for a flu shot?

Safe and effective vaccines have been available and used for more than 60 years. Among healthy adults, flu vaccine can prevent 70 to 90 percent of influenza-specific illness. Among the elderly, the vaccine reduces severe illnesses and complications by up to 60 percent and deaths by 80 percent. 

The seasonal flu vaccine protects against three influenza viruses that research indicates will be most common during the upcoming season. The viruses in the vaccine change each year based on international surveillance and scientists’ estimations about which types and strains of viruses will circulate in a given year.

Flu vaccines protect patients against the season’s influenza strains and hence, should be taken annually. Side effects might include soreness, redness or swelling where the shot was given, fever (low-grade) and aches. If these problems occur, they begin soon after the shot and usually last one to two days. Almost all people who receive flu vaccine have no serious problems from it. However, if the side effect persists for more than a few days, medical treatment should be sought.

What protection does the flu shot provide for seniors? Does it provide full protection against flu?

A vaccination can offer immunity to the flu for up to one year. Immunity after vaccination varies from person to person, but the body will start producing the antibodies that provide protection after two weeks. People belonging to the high-risk group should get their annual flu shot to prevent unnecessary health complications.

The vaccine does not provide 100-percent protection because there are many different strains of influenza out there. However, even if you do develop the flu despite vaccination, the vaccine will still help prevent lower respiratory tract involvement or other secondary complications, reducing the risk of hospitalisation and death.

What if a senior gets the flu? What treatments are there?

Flu in the frail elderly person can be serious and occasionally lead to death due to weaker immune systems. Hence, it is highly recommended for the elderly to get their annual flu vaccinations. If a senior contracts the flu, there are several treatments available:

•    Antibiotics can be used to treat infections like chest or ear infections that often result from the flu. However, the flu itself will not respond to antibiotics as it is a viral infection.

•    Best possible treatment for flu is to stay in bed, resting as much as possible and helping the body to fight the viral infection. Patients are also advised to drink plenty of liquids to help rehydrate the body as it will be depleted of fluids lost through sweating.

•    If there is a cough, blocked nose or sinuses, decongestant medicines can help. Patients are advised to always check with their doctors if in doubt of which medication to consume. 

•    Aspirin, etc, can help to relieve headaches, aches and pains and to bring down a high temperature. 

Is a regular dose of vitamin C just as effective as the shot?

Vitamin C is an important vitamin and antioxidant that the body uses to keep you strong and healthy. However, regular consumption of vitamin C does not obviate the need for a flu vaccination. Taking the precautionary step of receiving a flu vaccination can help prevent serious complications, reducing the risk of hospitalisation and death.


** FOR MORE INFORMATION – World Health Organisation, Influenza (Seasonal) Factsheet,, last accessed on July 26, 2011 and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,, last accessed on July 26 2011. 


(* PHOTO CREDIT: Tissue box, davidlat, stock.xchng)



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