Dr Charles Shepherd, Hon. Medical Adviser, ME Association.
Seasonal flu (also known as influenza) is a highly infectious illness caused by several types of flu virus. It spreads rapidly through small infected droplets that are coughed or sneezed into the air by an infected person. Even people with mild or no symptoms can infect other people.
As there is no simple answer as to whether you should have a flu vaccine if you have ME/CFS, the purpose of this leaflet is to provide information on all aspects of flu vaccination in relation to ME/CFS. You and your doctor can decide if you ought to have this protection.
Extracts from the free leaflet…
The 2019-2020 Flu Jab
Flu vaccine is offered free on the NHS to people in certain at-risk groups. These are mainly people who are at greater risk of developing serious complications if they catch flu.
The list includes people with a number of pre-existing health conditions – including neurological and immunological diseases, heart and respiratory diseases, pregnant women, obesity and the over-65s.
People who receive a Carer’s Allowance or are the main carer for a sick or disabled person, are also eligible for a free NHS vaccine.
For 2019-2020 there are three types of flu vaccine available. You will be offered the one that is most effective for your age:
- Children aged 2 to 17 in an eligible group are being offered a live attenuated quadrivalent vaccine (LAIV), which protects against four strains of flu. This is given as a nasal spray.
- Adults aged 18 to 64 who are either pregnant, or at increased risk from flu because of a long-term health condition, are offered a quadrivalent injected vaccine – the vaccine offered will have been grown either in eggs or cells (QIVe or QIVc), which are considered to be equally suitable.
- Adults aged 65 and over will be offered either an adjuvanted trivalent injected vaccine grown in eggs (aTIV) or a cell-grown quadrivalent injected vaccine (QIVc) – both vaccines are considered to be equally suitable. An adjuvant is a substance that is added to a vaccine to increase the body’s immune response to the vaccine.
The best time to have a flu jab is in the autumn – from mid-September onwards through until early November. It takes two to three weeks for the vaccine to become fully effective.
Free leaflet and download
The full leaflet weighs up the pros and cons of flu vaccination for people with ME/CFS.
It contains updated information about the strains of flu that the latest vaccination is seeking to protect people against.
Do people with ME/CFS meet NHS criteria for having a free flu vaccination?
Having a chronic neurological disease is one of the recommended criteria for NHS flu vaccination, and the classification of ME/CFS in WHO ICD10 as a neurological disease is fully recognised by the Department of Health.
The ME Association believes that people with ME/CFS should therefore qualify for a free NHS flu jab if they decide to have one.
Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer at the Department of Health, has also stated in 2014:
“As you know, the risk of serious illness from flu and consequent hospitalisation and death is higher among those with underlying health conditions such as M.E.
“We know that people with chronic neurological conditions are approximately 40 times more likely to die if they develop flu than individuals who have no other underlying health conditions.
“The best way for people at risk from flu to protect themselves and their families is to get the flu vaccine. People with clinical risk factors are eligible to receive the seasonal flu vaccine free each winter.”
When it comes to flu jabs and ME/CFS, key points in favour of having this protection include:
- Flu vaccination should provide a fairly high degree of protection against the strains that are likely to be around this winter.
- Overall, the vaccine reduces the chances of catching flu by about two-thirds. However, the level of protection given by the 2014-15 vaccine was disappointingly low at around 34%.
- Protection continues for about a year.
- Anyone with serious health problems in addition to ME/CFS such as chest (especially asthma or bronchitis), heart, liver or kidney disease, diabetes, a weakened immune system, or who is taking steroid medication, is particularly at risk of developing serious complications from flu.
- If you have already had a flu vaccine while suffering from ME/CFS, and not suffered any adverse effects, it is reasonable (but not guaranteed) to assume that you should be OK this time round (although the viral make-up of the vaccine is changed from year to year).
- Serious adverse reactions are very rare with this vaccine although minor transient problems such as malaise, headache and muscle pain do sometimes occur. A full list of potential side-effects is listed later in this leaflet.
- The only published research study into adverse reactions to flu vaccine in people with ME/CFS concluded that people with ME/CFS were no more likely to have a serious adverse reaction than people receiving this vaccine for recommended reasons.
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