50+ health

Swine flu in older people

over 65s are a high risk group for swine flu infection Less likely to be infected but still at risk

Reports of swine flu in people over the age of 65 have been somewhat confusing. We would like to clear up the facts on this important matter.

People over the age of 65 are always considered to be at a higher risk of catching seasonal flu and developing complications. Each year, an average of 12,000 people die from seasonal flu in the UK, many from this age group. Because of this, older people are always strongly encouraged to be vaccinated against the disease each year.

Older people are similarly considered to be a high risk group for swine flu.

Many reports in the media have pointed out that most cases of swine flu have occurred in the young, and that older people may have a low level of immunity to the disease. While there is some truth to this, it does not mean that older people will not catch the disease, or that they form a low risk group.

Although the RATE of infection in older people is lower than in younger people, if infected, an older person is MUCH MORE LIKELY to suffer serious complications than a younger person outside any of the other risk groups.

This is why older people are in the high risk group, and why any person over 65 who contracts swine flu will be given antiviral drugs by their doctor. It is also why older people are a priority for vaccination if and when a vaccine becomes available.

Why are older people less likely to be infected?

It may be that they have acquired some immunity due to a previous infection by a related strain of flu virus (the last flu pandemic in the UK was over 40 years ago). It could also be due to the high levels of vaccination against seasonal flu in this age group. Alternatively, it may also be a temporary situation, as older people are less likely to spend time in large groups or crowds than younger people have been less exposed to other infected people.

It may also be the case that the virus will mutate over the coming months and become more infectious to older people that it has been to date.

In any event, people over 65 should take adequate precautions. They should:

  • Avoid unnecessary travel or crowds
  • Keep away from anyone infected with swine flu
  • Ensure that they have a "flu friend" who is able to check on them, especially if they live alone
  • Ensure that they have adequate supplies of paracetamol-based medicines
  • Have the number of their GP or other health provider close to hand

TheFamilyGP guide to swine flu

Action plan

For tips on how to be prepared for swine flu, and important contact numbers and sources of information.

Swine flu background

Risk groups

Progress of the disease

This article was published on Fri 17 July 2009

Image © deanm1974 - Fotolia.com

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