HSE campaign launched for anti-influenza vaccinations
Appeal aimed at groups at risk of complications from the flu amid fears 1,000 could die if season is severe
Seven-year-old Oisín Blaney Shorte, from Terenure, Dublin, who has asthma, with clinical nurse manager Bríd Ryan O’Malley at Dr Steeven’s Hospital, where the HSE simulated giving a vaccination jab. Photograph: bryan O’Brien
The Health Service Executive has launched a major campaign urging people in at-risk groups to get vaccinated against influenza. Research released as part of the “Get the vaccine not the flu” campaign suggests that up to 1,000 people in Ireland could die of influenza-related illness if the country experiences a particularly severe flu season. So who should get the vaccination, how does it work and will it give you the flu?
Who should get the flu vaccine?
According to the HSE, the vaccine is recommended for those more at risk of complications of flu – including people aged 65 and over, people with long-term medical condition such as diabetes, heart or lung disease, people whose immune system is impaired due to disease or treatment, residents of nursing homes and other long-stay institutions, people with a body mass index over 40 and pregnant women. “Flu vaccine is also recommended for healthcare workers and carers as the elderly and at risk patients who they care for may not get sufficient protection from the vaccine themselves,” they add.
Why is there a new ‘seasonal’ vaccine each year?
Flu (or influenza) viruses change over time, and the strains of flu virus circulating this year might “look” different to previous flu viruses – at least from the perspective of your immune system. Getting the appropriate vaccine can help the immune system to recognise the main strains of flu circulating this year.
“Influenza viruses are constantly evolving, and small changes [in surface structures on the virus] can occur that result in individuals becoming at increased of infection from these viruses,” explains Dr Jeff Connell, assistant director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory based at University College Dublin. “Therefore the influenza vaccine needs to be updated each year to account for these changes, to ensure the vaccine is effective against the currently circulating strains.”
How do we know in advance how to design the seasonal flu vaccine?
That involves gathering data on the nature of the flu viruses that are circulating. “The World Health Organisation has a global network of 140 National Influenza Centres, and the UCD National Virus Reference Laboratory is the NIC for Ireland. In addition the WHO has 22 reference laboratories which collate the data from the NICs,” explains Dr Connell from the NVRL. “Throughout the year influenza viruses which are circulating are characterised by this laboratory network to identify any significant changes, so that a representative of these viruses can be included in the vaccine for the next season.”
What is different about a flu pandemic?
It’s down to a significant change in the flu virus, as Dr Connell from the NVRL explains. “Influenza A in particular evolves constantly, with small changes [in the surface structures] – this is called antigenic drift. However, vary rarely a significant change occurs in the virus – this is called antigenic shift – and a novel virus emerges which has not previously infected humans,” he says. “If widespread human infection occurs, this would be classified as a pandemic. In this event, as occurred in 2009, there would be a major global initiative to develop a vaccine specific for the new virus.”