Get vaccinated ahead of cold and flu season

Some years tend to be worse than others when it comes to respiratory illnesses, and this year is certainly stacking up to be a significant season with flu, RSV, whooping cough, mycoplasma and COVID doing the rounds, AMA Queensland President Dr Maria Boulton told ABC Radio North Queensland. "Once the cold weather starts rolling in, check in with yourself. Have you had your flu shot?" she said.

Transcript: AMA Queensland President, Dr Maria Boulton, ABC Radio North Queensland, Mornings with Susan Graham-Ryan, Tuesday 7 May 2024

Subjects: Cold and flu season

SUSAN GRAHAM-RYAN: I'm joined by Dr Maria Boulton, a GP and President of the Australian Medical Association in Queensland. Good morning.

DR MARIA BOULTON: Good afternoon, Susan. And I love my mother’s chicken soup as a remedy. It’s brilliant.

SUSAN GRAHAM-RYAN: We might have to get that from you, Dr Boulton. Let's firstly talk about cold and flu season. Why are we looking at that record cold and flu season?

DR MARIA BOULTON: It's really interesting with respiratory illnesses, in that some years seem to be worse than others. And certainly, this year is stacking up to be a significant season with not just flu, but also RSV, whooping cough, mycoplasma and COVID doing the rounds.

So, at the moment, there's hundreds of people already in hospital with many of those illnesses. And the issue here is that we're not really into the prime time of winter yet. So, we're really holding our breath to see what will happen. But the best thing to do is if you're eligible for any of the vaccines that will stop you from getting severe disease – so there's COVID vaccines, there's flu vaccines, there's whooping cough vaccines, and now we have RSV vaccines for eligible babies – then please, go and get one.

SUSAN GRAHAM-RYAN: So, if you can help us understand the difference between a cold, influenza and RSV, tell us a little bit about the differences of those.

DR MARIA BOULTON: So colds, influenza and RSV are all viruses. Clinically they're quite tricky to tell apart sometimes because they can present with very similar symptoms, and they can be very mild. So, people can get maybe a sniffly nose and a sore throat, but they can also be quite severe in that some people can come in with pneumonia, fevers, fatigue. And it can last a few days, up to a couple of weeks.

The issue is that even as a doctor, sometimes it can be quite tricky to tell them apart. And that's why we rely on, that testing. So, if we're not sure, we'll send people over for a swab to see what they're carrying, particularly if you're also trying to rule out a bacteria such as mycoplasma and whooping cough, because with bacteria, the treatment will be different. But essentially, a cold is a very mild respiratory illness. When people say that they have a flu, it's something more significant. And it can be quite difficult to tell apart all of those viruses and bacteria.

SUSAN GRAHAM-RYAN: These things do come around each year, as you've mentioned, and sometimes because they are around so much, do you think that there's some complacency that slips in? Because these can be really serious, can't they, in some cases? And in some cases, they can even be fatal.

DR MARIA BOULTON: They can be quite serious, particularly in the very young, in older people, in people with some illnesses such as diabetes, heart failure, kidney failure, and also pregnant women. And yes, there is a little bit of complacency. There also is that vaccine fatigue factor. And it can make it difficult sometimes for people to remember that it should be an annual thing. It should be habit. Every year we should all just present for our flu vaccine as soon as it's available, check whether or not we're immune to COVID, whether we need the vaccine, and also check to see whether you're due for your whooping cough vaccine. So, it should be habit.

Once the cold weather starts rolling in, check in with yourself. Have you had your flu shot? And this year it's much more affordable because we know that the State Government has subsidised the private vaccines. So, they're free now, so there's really no cost imposition for people to go and access those vaccines.

SUSAN GRAHAM-RYAN: You are on ABC Radio Queensland, Susan with you, and I'm speaking with Dr Maria Boulton. She's a GP and also the President of AMA Queensland. So COVID is still a thing that we need to make sure we're across. Do we need to be thinking of how does this play into the cold and flu season?

DR MARIA BOULTON: We had a meeting with some primary care stakeholders this morning, and what was discussed was the fact that at the moment, there's 160 people with COVID who are in hospital. There's been 23,000 cases of COVID in Queensland so far this year and it seems that the cases have started trickling up. And certainly what we don't want is a COVID wave to coincide with the usual flu and other virus waves that we normally get. So, it's a really big concern. But once again, the good news is that with the COVID vaccine, if you're due, you can have it the same day as your flu vaccine. So, there's no reason to delay.

SUSAN GRAHAM-RYAN: Do you think the numbers are a true indication of what is actually being seen? Because I know a lot of people will avoid going to the doctor because they say – don't come if you've got those cold and flu symptoms or to call ahead. Do you think that there are a lot more cases that we're not seeing?

DR MARIA BOULTON: Most definitely, because you'll find that some people will just stay home and just struggle through. And some people with mild symptoms are able to do that, so they won't get tested. Sometimes we don't test if it's not going to make a difference to what we do clinically. The other thing is that you're right, I think the number of reported test cases will completely under-call the number of infections out there.

I'm a mum, I've got school kids, and speaking to other mums there's a lot of kids that are missing school at the moment because they're unwell. And as a GP, we're seeing a lot of illness out there. So, I do think that the case numbers that get reported because there are people that have tested positive do under-call the numbers. And so sometimes it's a bit more reliable to look at the people who are in hospital because that tells you exactly how much of the severe disease is out there.

SUSAN GRAHAM-RYAN: Just quickly, some of the areas around Queensland, including Cairns and Hervey Bay, they're considered cold and flu hotspots. Why do you think that is?

DR MARIA BOULTON: Really interesting point. I guess with Cairns there is a lot of travel, so we get a lot of overseas tourists coming to Cairns and bringing those virus strains from overseas, which is normally what happens year in, year out. We know that in Queensland, viruses spread to different regions at different times. So normally they start out in the South-East corner, and they spread to other areas.

I'm not too sure about Hervey Bay, whether there's just more testing happening or whether it's just, we know it's an older population, so they are more vulnerable and perhaps they're getting tested more. But we know that certainly there's numbers of everything all through Queensland, so no matter where you live, it's just really important that you check your vaccine eligibility and if you're sick that you stay home and seek medical care when you need to. And don't forget that most doctors offer telehealth appointments as well. So, if you need to, you can contact your GP, make an appointment and speak to them on the phone.

SUSAN GRAHAM-RYAN: Dr Maria Boulton, GP and President of AMA Queensland. Thank you very much for your time, and we might just hassle you for that recipe you were saying earlier for your home remedy for cold and flu season this year. Thanks so much for your time.



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