KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 1 — Most Malaysians won’t run to their doctors for a jab when they have sore throats and runny noses, thinking it’s just a common cold.
But they should reconsider as they could be infected with influenza, which can have dire effects, including death, public health expert Dr Wan Noraini Wan Mohamed Nor warned in a recent Facebook Live session on the Health Ministry’s page.
“It may seem trivial when you come down with a cold where you can still function normally. But when you are outside interacting with others, you do not know which one of them could well be in the influenza high-risk categories,” the Health Ministry (MoH) official said.
“For example, a child with the flu going to school. Something as mild as that could spread to his or her classmates or even the teachers, leading to a serious infection,” she said.
She added that working adults pose the same health risks to their peers and should seek proper treatment for the best recovery.
Dr Wan Noraini also advocated for yearly vaccinations against influenza.
She said there are currently two types available in the market known as trivalent vaccine and quadrivalent vaccine.
“The reason why you should seek yearly flu shots is due to the constantly-changing nature of influenza’s virus structure,” she said, noting that the World Health Organisation frequently makes adjustments to the vaccination formulation as contagion spreads easily and reinfection is high.
“But of all the high-risk categories, even those normally healthy who have never been vaccinated against influenza before are also at the highest risk. I can only urge them to do so, as it can strike regardless of age, race, or economic status,” she said.
The influenza virus is part of the Orthomyxoviridae family of viruses and includes seven genera such as Influenzavirus A to D, Isavirus, and Quaranjavirus, and Thogotovirus.
Of these viruses, Influenzavirus A to C primarily infect humans. The symptoms vary, ranging from the mild like sore throats and runny noses to more severe complications like viral pneumonia, sinus infections and even heart failure.
Yet influenza is such a common ailment that the MoH has not categorised it as one of the 31 diseases listed in the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988 that requires mandatory reporting for monitoring and statistical records, unlike other diseases like tuberculosis and dengue.
Dr Wan Noraini said this makes it hard for the MoH to collect precise hard data on the rate of influenza infections.
“There are no records in the ministry for every influenza case that occurs in Malaysia,” she said.
She said currently, the ministry can only gather proxy data for influenza infection trends based on surveillance activity conducted at 15 public health clinics and nine hospitals nationwide.
She explained that these facilities serve as sentinel locations to find out the daily rate of consultations for influenza-like illnesses and the rate of hospital admission for severe acute respiratory infections, among others.
Flu vaccinations, cost and those who need it most
While government-owned hospitals and clinics are able to test and treat for influenza, Dr Wan Noraini said vaccinations are not currently available there as it has not yet been made part of the National Immunisation Programme.
Those seeking to be vaccinated against influenza must do so at private health institutes.
“Influenza vaccinations at private clinics can be performed for up to RM200 or less, with the price depending on the facility. Those seeking to know where to get flu shots can refer to the Immunise4Life website, which provides information on suitable locations based on where you stay.
“As a rule, there are several categories which are considered as high-risk and need vaccination against influenza the most. Pregnant women are at the top of this list, as vaccination will protect both mother and the child in her womb,” she said.
Dr Wan Noraini, part of the ministry’s Disease Control Division, said it is particularly important for pregnant women to vaccinate themselves since an infant cannot be vaccinated until they are six months old.
“It can be done at any stage of the pregnancy. On average, a pregnant woman’s physiology means her immune system is slightly lower than normal, which means when an influenza infection occurs, it can be dangerous for the foetus.
“Based on readily-available research information, an influenza infection could cause the child to be born prematurely or even die while in the womb,” she said.
Apart from pregnant women, other categories particularly vulnerable to influenza include children under the age of five, the elderly, the obese, and those with chronic aliments, such as diabetes and high-blood pressure.
“Individuals who are on certain medication such as steroids, which lowers the body’s immunity against diseases, are also at risk. For example, a normal person is able to recover from influenza within two to three days with enough treatment and rest.
“But for the high-risk categories, even a simple infection can lead to serious complications such as lung inflammation and meningitis,” Dr Wan Noraini said.