AS health workers call for stricter protocols to lighten their load in an overwhelmed healthcare system, there is one thing you can do to help: get vaccinated.

A webinar last week called Protect the Elderly by the Philippine Foundation for Vaccination (PFV) called to continue immunization during the community quarantine and prioritize the elderly. The webinar focused on the administration of influenza (or flu) vaccines to the elderly, a particularly vulnerable sector.

“Among the vulnerable populations that can benefit the most from these vaccines are the elderly,” said Dr. Liza Gonzales, president of the PFV. “These vaccines protect against infectious diseases that have the potential to weaken the immune system and increase susceptibility to COVID-19. Many studies have documented that a previous viral infection like flu can precede the development of severe bacterial pneumonia leading to hospitalization, and even death.”

Internist and Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Arthur Dessi Roman gave various reasons on why the elderly are particularly susceptible to the flu, and thus more in need of the flu vaccine. “As we grow older, our immune system also grows old. Unfortunately, the capability of the immune system to respond is not as good anymore as when we are young,” he said. Among the other reasons he listed are the presence of comorbid illnesses such as heart and lung disease and diabetes. “People with diabetes experience more serious outcomes following a flu infection.” He presented data saying that diabetic patients have three to six times higher risks of being hospitalized due to flu-related causes, four times as high the risk to be admitted to the ICU, and six times as high the risk for death. Other reasons he gave include physical changes such as a weaker cough and gag reflex (the cough response is to prevent contaminants from entering the respiratory tract), poor nutrition, impaired understanding and self-care, increased contact with medical facilities, and use of medical devices. “All of these things contribute to the reasons why the elderly population are actually at risk of getting infected with a lot of bacteria, viruses, and fungal infections,” said Dr. Roman.

He then highlighted why getting vaccinated against the flu during a pandemic of another sort is still important. “I want to remind everyone that flu vaccination matters even more during this time,” he said.  According to him, being protected against the flu will prevent getting an infection with symptoms similar to those of COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019), avoiding anxiety and stress. The flu can also weaken the immune system, thus opening the door for a possible COVID-19 infection. He also said that a co-infection with COVID-19 and the flu is possible, which leads to more serious complications.

Finally, he noted that it avoids additional hospitalization and consultations when hospitals are already overwhelmed. He said that in the US, the flu vaccine decreased consultation for flu-related causes by up to 60%.

“Staying healthy is your best shot against preventing COVID-19 infections,” he said.

“Receiving the flu vaccine is not just about ourselves,” he said in a mix of Tagalog and English. “Also remember that getting vaccinated yourself may also protect people around you.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages, contact a doctor to administer the flu shot at your home or some other location, instead of setting up an appointment at the hospital. — Joseph L. Garcia