Football and flu

As millions are enraptured watching the FIFA World Cup – in person or on TV – you may be at higher risk of getting flu and spreading it. Make sure you know how to protect yourself and others.

Before the World Cup was even established, influenza was taking its toll on football players, managers and spectators alike. In 1918, the “Spanish Flu” influenza pandemic infected around 500 million people and forced society to implement widespread measures, clamping down on large gatherings of people including sports events like football matches.

More than a century later, as many as a billion people—football players or not—still get seasonal influenza every year, and it can still cause severe illness or even death.

What are the symptoms? They can include fever, cough (usually dry), headache, muscle and joint pain, sore throat and a runny nose. The cough can be severe and can last 2 or more weeks. Most people recover within a week without requiring medical attention. If one of the professional footballers at the World Cup gets flu this month, they will be advised to drink plenty of water and rest. They probably won’t be able to play, but they are unlikely to get severely ill.

But for some of those watching the football, getting influenza poses a much more serious threat of hospitalization or even death. People at high risk of influenza complications include:

  • pregnant women at any stage of pregnancy;
  • elderly individuals (aged more than 65 years);
  • individuals with chronic medical conditions;
  • health-care workers; and
  • children aged between 6 months to 5 years.

WHO recommends everyone in these groups get an annual vaccination. The WHO Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System (GISRS) – a network of National Influenza Centres and WHO Collaborating Centres around the world – continuously monitors the influenza viruses circulating in humans and updates the composition of influenza vaccines twice a year. So you can rest assured that the vaccine is effective and up-to-date.

Even if you are not in a high-risk group you can choose to get vaccinated. If you are watching the football this month – in person alongside hundreds or thousands of other people, or on TV with family and friends – you may be at higher risk of getting flu or transmitting it to others. This is because, as with COVID-19, influenza thrives on the ‘three Cs’: closed spaces, crowded places, and close contact.

Influenza can spread quickly between people when an infected person coughs or sneezes, dispersing droplets of the virus into the air. It can be also spread by hands contaminated by the virus.

You can help protect yourself and others by taking personal precautionary measures like:

  • regularly washing (and properly drying) your hands;
  • wearing a mask;
  • avoiding touching your eyes, nose or mouth;
  • covering your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, using tissues and disposing of them correctly;
  • self-isolating if you feel unwell, are feverish and have other symptoms; and
  • avoid close contact with sick people.

So, enjoy the football, stay safe, and see you in 2023.

Public Release. More on this here.