Older people at risk as flu vaccine rates fall

WHO says falling uptake of flu jab jeopardising ability of health systems to fight next pandemic

Low uptake of the winter flu vaccine across Europe is jeopardising the ability of health systems to protect against the next pandemic, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned.

Older people and other high-risk groups are at risk of “serious consequences” as a result of the declining uptake of the influenza vaccination, they say.

Uptake among high-risk groups has dropped in Europe over the last seven years, according to a new WHO study. Half of the countries examined reported a decrease in the number of vaccine doses available.

Uptake of the seasonal vaccine between 2008/2009 and 2014/ 2015 in the European region was examined by the WHO and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).


Both organisations said the low uptake “jeopardises the capacity to protect people during annual epidemics and the next pandemic”.

Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO regional director for Europe, said the trend has been “steadily declining in a number of countries in the European region”.

“This is of serious concern now for people at higher risk of severe consequences, especially older people, and in the future potentially for the entire population as the production of pandemic vaccines is closely linked to seasonal vaccine use.”


Dr Andrea Ammon, director of ECDC, said all European Union states have signed up to the goal of reaching 75 per cent uptake among older people and other vulnerable groups, but these targets were not being reached.

Ireland’s uptake of the vaccine among the 65-plus age group dropped from 70 per cent in 2008/2009 to 60 per cent in 2014/2015.

Ireland ranked eighth (among 48 WHO states) for older people with a vaccination rate of 60 per cent, according to data from 2010.

The WHO said while vaccines were more widely available, uptake had been low or dropping for reasons ranging from complacency and lack of confidence in vaccines and health authorities, to lack of recommendations by healthcare workers and expenses.

The report states an improved understanding of the barriers to vaccination and the elimination of these “will be critical for increasing uptake and reversing negative trends”.

Well-known barrier

“Since out-of-pocket expenses (even when reimbursable in full or partly) is a well-known barrier to vaccination and places a disproportionate financial burden on patients in lower income groups, provision of free of charge seasonal influenza vaccination to older people and other patient risk groups is an urgent task.”

Among responding countries with a national vaccination policy in 2014/2015, all but one country (Armenia) recommended influenza vaccination for older people.

Vaccination uptake for older people in 2014/2015 ranged from 0.03 per cent to 76.3 per cent, with an average of 34.4 per cent. Only Scotland reached the WHO and European Council goal of 75 per cent in the 2014/2015 season, with Belarus, England and Northern Ireland close behind.

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns is a reporter for The Irish Times