Flu is bad for business. It costs the Australian economy an estimated $35 billion each year1, while the cost to individual companies is as much as $1,300 for each week an employee is bedridden, according to a conservative estimate by the NSW Business Chamber2.

However, flu is about more than dollars and cents.

The disease kills around 3,500 Australians annually3, about the same number killed on the nation’s roads4. It also can cause severe illness, particularly among infants, the elderly, and those with immune suppressive disorders or chronic medical conditions – the very people who make up workers’ families.

Unfortunately, when it comes to flu, employees rarely do the right thing by themselves, their colleagues – or their employer, a national-wide survey by Australia’s Influenza Specialist Group (ISG) revealed.

The danger of presenteeism
Dr Alan Hampson, ISG Chairman and a leading Australian expert on flu, said every winter many workers who get flu also suffer from an equally common condition he calls  ‘presenteeism’.

Our survey found that staggering 9-out-of-10 Australian workers admit to having risked their own health and that of their colleagues by going to work with flu symptoms,

Dr Hampson said.

They often say that they don’t want to let down their colleagues or miss deadlines.

While Australians generally are becoming increasingly upset when people ‘soldier on’ when sick, they are often reluctant to practice flu etiquette themselves. The survey revealed that around 70% confess to socialising despite having flu symptoms, too.

Dr Hampson believes Australian workers still underestimate just how dangerous flu can be. Almost 20% of those surveyed said they went to work with flu symptoms because they felt they weren’t ‘serious enough’ to warrant staying home.

Flu needs to be taken seriously.

It’s a mindset which is not only costing our economy more than $34 billion each year, it is potentially risking lives.

Besides those who die each winter, around 300,000 Australians have to see their GP and 18,000 require hospital treatment.

People need to take the flu virus much more seriously. Its symptoms are often confused with those of the common cold, but flu can’t be shrugged off with hot lemon drinks and paracetamol.

The only effective protection against flu is annual vaccination – ideally in autumn when the vaccine is released – because each year the vaccine is formulated specifically to protect against that year’s flu strains.  We also need to keep on topping up our immunity to get the best protection.

A growing number of Australian employers are responding to the threat of flu offering their employees free onsite vaccination, protecting both their employees and their bottom line.

Potentially severe flu season ahead

Dr Hampson said it was not uncommon for the Southern Hemisphere flu season to share similar characteristics to the preceding northern season, which has been severe.

US health authorities have described America’s flu season as the most severe and prolonged in a decade – particularly for the elderly, who were more likely to be hospitalised. In Hong Kong, the H3N2 strain has been responsible for up to 18 deaths a day in recent weeks.

One reason for the severity of the northern winter flu was that the vaccine was less effective than normal because one of its three viral component ­– the H3N2 strain – had ‘drifted’ from its genetic code of the previous year when development of the vaccine began.

Flu vaccination program delayed

For Australia, the vaccine formulation recommended by WHO in September included two new strains, one an updated version of the H3N2 virus which will cover the strains seen recently in the Northern Hemisphere.  Each strain change presents problems and potential delays for regulatory authorities and vaccine manufacturers and this year the double strain change has caused a supply delay that is likely to postpone the launch of Australia’s 2015 National Seasonal Influenza Immunisation Program from March to April.

The mutation has been addressed in this year's Southern Hemisphere vaccine.

The H3N2 component was changed to bring it into line with the circulating virus and there has also been a change made to the influenza B component.

All available data indicates that we won’t face a similar situation here this winter. The vaccine should offer Australians good protection.

Sonic HealthPlus offers Australian companies two flu vaccination services: We can send a vaccination team to your workplace at a time convenient to you, or provide pre-paid flu vouchers so your employees can visit one of our clinics to receive a flu shot at a time the suits them.

  1. Flu season could cost NSW businesses $482 million (2012)
  2. Medibank Private Survey, July 2011 – Sick at work, the cost of presenteeism to your business and the economy
  3. In Australia influenza and its complications is estimated to cause between 1500 and 3500 deaths and more than 18,000 hospitalisations per year. (Newall AT, Wood JG, MacIntyre CR. Influenza-related hospitalisation and death in Australians aged 50 years and older Vaccine 2008;051
  4. Fatalities each year on Australian and Victorian roads. Information sourced from Australian Transport Safety Bureau and Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics and Transport Accident Commission: in 2010 1368 died on Australian roads.
  5. National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and Emily Post Institute 2012 survey.
Dr Eddy Bajrovic
Travel Doctor and General Practitioner

Dr Eddy Bajrovic is a Sonic HealthPlus Doctor and Medical Director of Travelvax Australia. Working primarily in the disciplines of general practice, occupational and travel medicine medicine, he has been a member of the International Society of Travel Medicine (ISTM) since 1998 and gained his Certificate in Travel Health in 2009.

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