Despite common misconceptions, influenza, or simply flu, is not just a common cold. It is a debilitating and potentially life threatening illness. In healthy people, influenza, despite being unpleasant, should clear up in the space of a week. It can, however, have a particularly serious effect on the most vulnerable in society, including the infirm and the elderly. Influenza also carries major risks for pregnant mothers and their unborn babies. But there are steps you can take to prevent contracting this illness, outlined below.

It is important to recognise that there are two types of influenza outbreaks; seasonal flu and pandemic flu. Whilst seasonal flu can be debilitating on a personal or family level, pandemic influenza has the potential to debilitate people on a much larger scale.

What is an Influenza Pandemic?

A pandemic is a global disease outbreak.  A Flu Pandemic occurs when a new flu virus emerges for which people have little, or no, immunity.  This will allow the virus to spread quickly and widely.

The Department of Health is the lead department for pandemic flu planning.  The government has developed a national plan and the Surrey Local Resilience Forum has developed plans to deal with such an eventuality in this area.  The government also have a stockpile of anti-virals.

What can you do?

The Department of Health have published a range of information to inform the public about the risk of a flu pandemic. 

Good respiratory and hand hygiene practices can help to reduce transmission of all viruses.

This includes:

  • covering your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, using a tissue when possible
  • disposing of dirty tissues promptly and carefully
  • maintaining good basic hygiene, for example washing hands frequently with soap and water to reduce the spread of the virus from your hands to face or to other people
  • cleaning hard surfaces (eg door handles) frequently using a normal cleaning product
  • making sure your children follow this advice

It is important to recognise that the steps outlined above are crucial in defending yourself and your loved ones against not just seasonal flu, but also in a pandemic situation.

Flu vaccinations

The injected flu vaccine (or flu jab) is offered free of charge on the NHS to people who are at risk. This is to ensure they are protected against catching flu and developing serious complications.

You are eligible to receive a free flu jab if you:

  • are 65 years of age or over  
  • are pregnant
  • have certain medical conditions
  • are very overweight
  • are living in a long-stay residential care home or other long-stay care facility
  • receive a carer's allowance, or you are the main carer for an elderly or disabled person whose welfare may be at risk if you fall ill
  • are a healthcare worker with direct patient contact, or a social care worker

For more detailed information on who should receive the flu vaccine, please see the NHS guidelines.

It is important to remember that whilst there is an annual vaccine programme for seasonal flu, the nature of pandemic flu may mean that a vaccine takes time to develop after an outbreak has begun. In this case, the public will be kept fully informed, and those most vulnerable will be prioritised. For this reason, the self-care steps outlined above are critical.