PETALING JAYA, Jan 19 — Read the news on any given day and you’ll see stories about Malaysian healthcare workers burning both ends of the candle to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, another crisis looms if we don’t prepare ourselves for a potential “twindemic.”
The term refers to a scenario where a country sees a spike in influenza cases paired with a rising number of Covid-19 cases.
Hospital Kuala Lumpur geriatrician Dr Rizah Mazzuin Razali warns that a “twindemic” could put further strain on healthcare workers who are already busy battling the Covid-19 crisis.
Dr Rizah, who is also a member of the Senior Flu Advocacy Sub-committee of the Malaysian Influenza Working Group (MIWG), said that those aged 65 and above with pre-existing conditions are especially at risk of getting infected with influenza.
“Healthcare workers get vaccinated for the flu because we’re at high-risk but many are not aware that the elderly are also considered a high-risk group.
“Influenza infections occur throughout the year in our country which means you can get infected with influenza at any time, unlike countries in the Northern or Southern hemisphere where influenza is more likely to spread during the colder months.
“If many patients get infected with influenza, it would cause a lot of complications in terms of hospitalisation, resources, and manpower since we are already dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic,” she said.
The best way to prevent the spread of influenza is for people to get vaccinated yearly.
With the Covid-19 vaccine just over the horizon, Dr Rizah recommends those in high-risk groups to get their flu jabs from their general practitioners now to avoid having to take two vaccines at the same time.
She noted that the influenza vaccine has been in use around the world for decades and there is no reason to worry about any major safety concerns.
Flu vaccine safety fears cropped up in October last year after more than 80 people died in South Korea after getting their jabs but it was concluded that the deaths likely resulted due to underlying conditions.
Malaysia’s Health Ministry also assured citizens that flu vaccines are safe to use following the review by the South Korean health authorities.
“The influenza vaccine has been in the market for many years and the safety level is assured as it is not something new.
“So far, we have not encountered any problems with regards to patients we have vaccinated and we have quite a number of people who get the vaccine on a yearly basis,” said Dr Rizah.
How bad can the flu be?
The popular adage “prevention is better than cure” is especially true when it comes to influenza.
The flu often results in fever, runny nose, sore throat, body aches, lethargy, and malaise but the effects can be more severe in elderly patients especially if they have pre-existing conditions such as diabetes or hypertension.
When this occurs, a hospital stay that could last as short as three days can stretch up to three or four weeks if admitted patients develop further complications.
Not only is this taxing for the patient but it results in a major financial burden as Dr Rizah says the cost of care for elders can range anywhere between RM1,000 and RM2,000 per day.
“If we can avoid two pandemics from happening and just focus on one, you can imagine how that would reduce the burden of financial costs.
“And of course, healthcare workers are working very hard right now and it would be great if we can have one less thing to worry about.”
Dr Rizah also shared the story of a patient in her mid-70s who went through a harrowing experience when she came down with influenza.
She was admitted to the hospital with a lung infection and while she initially responded well to oxygen treatment, her condition rapidly deteriorated on the third day after admission.
The patient tested positive for influenza and she had to be on a ventilator for a week as she could no longer breathe on her own.
She lost a large percentage of her muscle bulk due to physical inactivity and the lack of oxygen flowing to her brain resulted in confusion, agitation, and uncooperative behaviour.
Her mental distress led to other complications as she tried to pull out her urinary catheter, which then caused bleeding and infection of the urinary tract that required further treatment.
Dr Rizah said that while the patient’s influenza settled within 10 days of admission, the delirium she experienced kept her at the hospital for 30 days.
“It might sound scary but that’s the reality if you are an elder who falls ill with influenza,” she said.
With these concerns in mind, Dr Rizah is urging those aged 65 and above to get their yearly flu jab to prevent the disease from causing complications to their health and the healthcare system at large.
Practices that have become the new norm in the age of Covid-19 such as mask-wearing, frequent hand washing, physical distancing, and sanitising also helps to stop the spread of the flu but Dr Rizah emphasised that vaccines are still the best option to protect yourself and your loved ones.
She added that Malaysians who get the influenza vaccine can claim tax exemptions under Budget 2021, saying that this a proactive move on behalf of the government to increase the uptake of flu jabs amongst the public.