In the uplifting spirit of Malaysia’s recent 65th Independence Day, the Immunise4Life (IFL) programme launched its ‘Preventing the Flu at 65 and Beyond’ campaign with the clarion call, “Flu Prevention, I Get It Done”. Flu is a respiratory disease that can hit older persons hard and fast. According to the US Center for Disease Control, up to 70% of hospitalisations and up to 85% of deaths related to the flu occur in those aged 65 years or older.
The event was officiated by Dato’ Dr Haji Noor Azmi Bin Ghazali, Deputy Minister of Health 1. He unveiled the ‘7 Keys to Happy & Healthy Ageing’, which incorporated flu (influenza) prevention as one of the recommended lifestyle habits for older persons to help maintain their health, independence and quality of life.
As the saying goes, age is just a number. As such, older persons should aspire to lead long and fulfilling lives by pursuing their passions, contributing to their communities, and enjoying their time with family and friends. However, this would only be possible if one stayed healthy.
In his speech, Dato’ Dr Haji Noor Azmi stressed the importance of eating a healthy diet, staying physically active, getting adequate rest and sleep, going for regular health check-ups, learning new skills, and socialising with loved ones and friends.
Additionally, he urged older persons to prevent the flu by getting vaccinated against the disease every year. Citing the World Health Organisation, he said flu vaccination is one of the best ways to reduce the risk of severe disease, hospitalisation and death. He also reminded the public to continue observing appropriate SOPs such as continuing to wear face masks, frequent hand washing and keeping one’s distance from those exhibiting respiratory symptoms.
Professor Datuk Dr Zulkifli Ismail, IFL Technical Committee Chairman, said: “As we age, our immune system tends to weaken and our lung function also declines. These make it more likely for us to suffer or die from its effects.”
He explained, “The flu may cause dizziness leading to falls, respiratory distress, and complications (such as pneumonia, inflammation of the brain, multi-organ failure or sepsis, an extreme immune system response to infection).
Professor Zulkifli added that flu can be particularly problematic to older persons with pre-existing chronic health conditions.
He elaborated, “People with diabetes are 6 times more likely to be hospitalised and 3 times more likely to die due to flu-related complications, compared with people without diabetes. Flu can also worsen one’s diabetes and even trigger diabetic emergencies.
“The flu is just as bad for the heart. When trying to fight off the flu, the body’s inflammatory response can cause blood clots, elevated blood pressure, and even swelling or scarring within the heart.
“In adults over the age of 40 without a history of cardiovascular disease, these stressors can trigger a heart attack or stroke within the first 3 days of a flu infection. If older individuals have coronary artery disease, heart failure or other heart conditions, the flu could be utterly overwhelming.”
However, there is hope. Professor Zulkifli declared: “In older persons, annual flu vaccination has been shown to reduce the risk of flu-related hospitalisation and death by over 40%. The yearly shot also benefits those living with diabetes by reducing their risk of stroke (by 30%), heart failure (22%), and heart attack (19%). As for cardiac patients, flu vaccination reduces the likelihood of major cardiovascular events (by 36%). Chances of dying goes down by 18% among those with heart failure. Individuals who had a recent acute coronary syndrome may lower the risk of a poor outcome by 45%.
Professor Zulkifli advised older persons to adopt a proactive attitude and say, “Flu prevention; I get it done!” He remarked, “Do not wait for an outbreak before getting a flu shot. Instead, make it an annual commitment. Do not underestimate the flu because it only takes a single infection for you and your loved ones to suffer devastating long-term consequences.”
Older persons who are confined to prolonged bed rest due to the flu may lose muscle and strength, while potentially being exposed to other infections. They may also develop irreversible functional decline and be unable to perform simple daily tasks without help. Losing their independence and sense of purpose, they may fall into depression.
All the while, their families are left to bear the cost of hospitalisation and homecare – a burden especially to those already struggling to earn a living.
Datuk Dr Zulkifli Ismail said Malaysia should emulate other countries in offering free flu vaccination to high-risk groups, including the elderly. Benefits will include a significant decrease in flu-related hospitalisation and death, and a corresponding increase quality of life.
He added, “In the meantime, let’s support the older generations in flu prevention through an all-of-society approach. Let us remind our aged parents to get their flu shot every year. Healthcare workers out there, get vaccinated yourselves and persuade your patients to do the same.”
The launch of ‘Preventing the Flu at 65 & Beyond’ will be followed with a series of educational activities coinciding with World Heart Day, International Day of Older Persons, World Diabetes Day and the year-end holiday season.
‘Preventing the Flu at 65 & Beyond’ is the 4th phase of the Flu Prevention is an Act of Love (AOL) initiative. It was launched in 2019 by Immunise4Life patron, Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali.
AOL involves the collaboration of the Malaysian Influenza Working Group, Malaysian Medical Association, Malaysian Endocrine and Metabolic Society, National Heart Association of Malaysia, Malaysian Healthy Ageing Society, National Council of Senior Citizens Organisations Malaysia, Association for Residential Aged Care Operators of Malaysia, and University of the Third Age. The campaign is supported by the Vaccination Is Protection (VIP) initiative.
AOL is organised under the larger Immunise4Life (IFL) programme that was founded by the Ministry of Health Malaysia, Malaysian Paediatric Association, and the Malaysian Society of Infectious Diseases & Chemotherapy.