23 March 2018

GEMS strives to protect the public service against seasonal influenza

As anyone who has experienced influenza, commonly known as ‘the flu’, will know, this is a most unpleasant condition that can often leave one feeling unwell for up to two weeks. With the ‘flu season’ drawing near, the Government Employees Medical Scheme (GEMS) encourages members to protect themselves against this common seasonal illness with the influenza vaccination.

Influenza symptoms often include debilitating fever, muscle aches, sore throat, headache and a persistent runny nose. Secondary infections, such as pneumonia, can be very serious, particularly for young children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems or who have underlying health problems.

Fortunately, the flu vaccine provides protection against many strains of influenza, including some of the more severe strains. The vaccine includes chemically inactivated virus strains, and this enables the body to learn to resist these specific strains of the virus so that the immune system is ready to fight the infection if you are exposed to the virus.

As part of GEMS’ commitment to keeping South Africa’s public servants healthy and productive, the Scheme urges members to consider having the annual flu vaccine, as influenza can lead to an increased risk of developing complications, such as pneumonia.

GEMS has allocated a special benefit for preventative care services for our members, and the Scheme will now fund the flu vaccine at pharmacies and clinics. 

It is advisable to have the vaccination as soon as possible, as it takes a few weeks for the antibodies from the vaccine to develop to full preventative strength. It is a good idea to have the vaccine each year, as the formula is updated to provide protection for the different flu virus strains that are in circulation each year. 
The degree of protection afforded by the flu vaccination depends on various factors, including a patient’s age, state of health, and the closeness of the “match” between the specific strains of influenza in circulation and those in the vaccine.

When people get vaccinated against flu, they are not only protecting themselves, but are also helping to protect their families, colleagues and communities. This is because the more people who are vaccinated against severe strains of the influenza virus, the smaller the chance of other people falling ill too – even among those who have not been vaccinated. It is therefore socially responsible to have the vaccine if you are able to. 

While the flu vaccine is safe for the majority of the population, people who should not have the vaccine include babies under six months of age, people who have experienced an extreme reaction to an influenza vaccination in the past or developed Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS). 

Anyone with a fever should wait until their symptoms lessen before they are vaccinated, and anyone with a severe allergy to chicken eggs should discuss any potential risks this may present or any necessary precautions with their doctor.

The following categories of people have a greater risk of falling ill with the flu virus and related complications:

  • Adults 65 years and older
  • Children younger than five years old, but especially children younger than two years old
  • Pregnant women 
  • People with underlying health conditions, including asthma, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease among others 
  • People with weakened immune systems, including people living with HIV or those taking medicines that suppress immune function.

If you have any concerns or any underlying health conditions, speak to your pharmacist, general practitioner or treating healthcare professional about whether the influenza vaccine is safe for you.

The vaccine is paid from the preventative care benefit for all at risk beneficiaries on all GEMS benefit options, in line with the Scheme rules, formularies and available benefits. The influenza vaccine is readily available from most clinics and pharmacies, and some employers even offer it in the workplace, as they know the value of keeping their staff members healthy.

Have the flu vaccine to help prevent influenza getting you down this year, as well as to help protect your family and community. This small investment in your time can help to ward off potentially serious health complications. We strongly encourage our valued GEMS members to take advantage of their preventative care benefit by having an influenza vaccination.