The recent deaths among children under eighteen in Dubai have made people more aware of flu's potentially fatal consequences and as we enter ‘flu season’ in the UAE (around September – March) the World Health Organisations recommends vaccination in the Middle East beginning October.

“Sometimes I see parents who are worried about their child having the flu jab and that is normal. No parent wants to see their child experience pain, ' says Dr Richard Jones from the Keith Nicholl Medical Centre in Dubai. "But complications from flu can be so much more serious that in my view a few seconds of pain from a needle is worth it.” 

We asked Dr Jones to bust some of the common myths surrounding the flu illness, while also offering his expert advice on avoiding and treating it:

What is the flu and which symptoms should we look out for?

Influenza is a viral respiratory illness. Not everyone who becomes infected gets sick but for those that do, common symptoms include headache, fever, cough, sore throat, aching muscles and joints and generally feeling awful. In most cases flu is unpleasant but usually self-limiting with recovery in 5-7 days.

There are three types of flu strain (A, B, C) and most years one or two strains of A and B circulate worldwide:

  • Influenza A (e.g. swine flu; H1N1) is usually more serious and is often responsible for big outbreaks
  • Influenza B is generally less severe
  • Influenza C is normally mild and like the common cold

Flu vaccines will protect against three to four strains (normally 2 A and 1-2 B).

Read more: The scary reason why you mustn't give your child antibiotics for a cold or flu

Who should get the vaccine?

In some people complications (such as pneumonia and meningitis) can develop and people can die because of flu, hence why the vaccine is important for vulnerable people. The most serious cases are seen in young children, pregnant women, older people and those with long term health conditions. The yearly influenza vaccine is recommended for those people at risk of serious complications if they were to catch flu:

  • Adults over 65 years old
  • Pregnant women (the vaccine is safe in pregnancy and if you're breast feeding)
  • Children aged 6 months – 5 years (The vaccine is NOT recommended in babies under 6 months)
  • Adults with a BMI of 40 or more
  • Anyone aged 5-65 who have health conditions such as respiratory disease (asthma, COPD); diabetes; heart problems; kidney and/or liver disease; suppressed immune system (on long term oral steroids, current or recent chemotherapy/radiotherapy, on immunosuppressants for rheumatological conditions like rheumatoid arthritis); people with no spleen or decreased function; people and/or family in close contact with individuals in the above categories.

I would 100% recommend that pregnant women get the vaccine, because the jab will not only protect you but it will also protect the unborn child. Pregnant women are very susceptible to flu and the complications can be serious. The vaccination is an inactivated virus so any fears that it can give flu to your baby are completely unfounded.

Of course, you can have the vaccination if you are not in the above categories, although the likelihood of having severe flu and its complications is low.

Read more: SIDS in the UAE: 15 ways to protect your baby

How much will the vaccine protect you and where can you get it?

Studies have shown vaccination helps protect against infection but post-vaccination protection levels are not 100% so there is no guarantee you will not get the flu.  However, if you did get the flu post vaccination then it is likely to be milder and shorter lived than it otherwise would be.

Flu strains change (mutate) every year, so new flu vaccines are produced every year to protect against current strains, hence why yearly vaccination is required.

It is very easy to get the flu shot. Simply call up your local physician and book an appointment. I administer dozens of flu shots each week at this time of year in my clinic. As for insurance cover, some will cover it and some won’t. If you are not covered the cost is not too prohibitive. We charge Dh250.

What can parents do if they suspect their child has flu?

The basic advice is to keep your child warm and hydrated and use children’s paracetamol and ibuprofen to control temperature. Normal body temperature for a child is 37ºC.

However, you must see a doctor if your child:

  • Develops breathing problems
  • Displays unusual behaviour
  • Has a temperature above 38.5
  • Is not tolerating fluids

Your doctor can test for flu and assess whether your child needs to be admitted to hospital

Read more: The five kinds of bacteria pregnant women should watch out for

And how do you avoid catching flu and preventing its spread?

  • Avoid contact with sick people
  • Similarly, if you have flu-like symptoms, stay home until 24 hours after the symptoms disappear
  • Disinfect surfaces and wash your hands often with soap and water
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, as germs spread faster that way
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, then throw it

Common flu myths busted:

‘Flu isn’t serious’
In most it isn’t, but in some it can be life-threatening (around 8000 people die each year in the UK from influenza.)

‘The flu vaccine doesn’t work’
It will protect around 6 people in 10 and is the most effective way to prevent catching and spreading it.

‘Flu vaccines can give the flu’
This is not possible as the vaccine is inactivated (dead).  It mimics the virus allowing the body to produce antibodies which, if flu is caught, are ready and waiting to kill the virus

'I won’t spread flu if I get it because I will avoid people at high risk’
Not everyone who catches flu is ill.  Some people have no symptoms and appear well but can still pass on the virus.  It spreads very easily. 

Read more: UAE’s 5 most common childhood illnesses and how to guard against them