Flu vaccine: high take-up is essential
Alarm prompted by particularly difficult flu season experienced by Australia’s health system
Europe is bracing itself for a challenging flu season. The scale of what lies ahead for health services was encapsulated by Prof Sir Malcolm Grant, chairman of the National Health Service in England, who noted that health chiefs “are more scared than they have ever been”.
The reason for alarm is a particularly difficult flu season experienced by Australia’s health system during its southern hemisphere winter. People were hit by two separate types of influenza: A (H3N2) and B. By the end of September more than 137,500 cases of flu had been reported – more than double the 53,159 cases confirmed by the same time last year. The H3N2 component of this year’s southern hemisphere flu vaccine was relatively ineffective. The vaccine being administered in the Republic contains the same strain of H3N2.
For production reasons the components of our annual flu vaccine are chosen by the World Health Organisation in February. It means a certain element of educated guesswork on the part of experts. Most years the vaccine is about 50 per cent effective; however the latest figures from Australia suggest a vaccine effectiveness of 33 per cent.
There is mounting concern about the knock-on effects of a severe flu epidemic on an already struggling health system. A long-standing shortage of intensive care beds in the Republic could become a choke point for the health service in the event of a severe flu outbreak. There are concerns that cancer surgery as well as all elective surgery would need to be cancelled for a period of up to 10 weeks.
There is little that can be done in the short term to remedy decades-old deficiencies in the public health service. However the HSE must work to ensure the highest possible influenza vaccination rates in the weeks ahead. The vaccine is known to reduce the severity of illness in those who contract flu. Health service staff, whose vaccine uptake in the past has been notably poor, must fulfil their responsibilities in this regard.