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Winter flu vaccine campaign gears up to prevent 'dual outbreaks' of influenza and Covid-19

For the first time, children aged 2-12 are also entitled to a free flu vaccine.

Details on the flu vaccine campaigns for at-risk groups and for children aged 2-12 are expected in the next week.
Details on the flu vaccine campaigns for at-risk groups and for children aged 2-12 are expected in the next week.
Image: PA Images

GETTING A FLU vaccine this year could be vital to help protect the health system cope with any additional strain caused by Covid-19.

The HSE’s upcoming winter flu campaign is to run from October until April 2021, with the aim being to ensure as many people as possible are vaccinated.

While flu vaccination is important in its own right, the HSE is seeking to reduce the burden on health services so the country is not overwhelmed with “dual outbreaks” of influenza and Covid-19.

This season, the flu vaccine and consultation are free for all people who are recommended to get it. This includes people aged 65 or above, pregnant women, people with long-term medical conditions and people whose immune systems are compromised. 

For the first time, children aged 2-12 are also entitled to a free flu vaccine

Further details of the HSE’s expanded campaign are expected to be announced in the next week, but a number of pharmacies have already begun to accept bookings for September and October. 

Lloyds Pharmacy has said that the flu vaccine will be administered by appointment only, with Boots saying that people can pre-register their interest before the booking system formally opens.  

The winter flu is so-called because influenza thrives in colder temperatures and prefers the humidity levels in the winter months. The virus is also more likely to be transmitted in winter months when people keep windows and doors closed. 

At present, it is too early to determine whether Covid-19 is similarly affected by the changing seasons, but there is evidence that people can be infected by both viruses at the same time. 

“We don’t yet understand how that alters the severity of disease,” Dr Kim Roberts, Assistant Professor of Virology at Trinity College Dublin told TheJournal.ie

Roberts adds, however, that both viruses have an impact on the respiratory system so a recovery from one virus could make a case of the other more serious. 

Potentially, we don’t have the data to say to one way or another at the moment. Therefore with that uncertainty and with the potential that if you’re getting over SARS-CoV-2 you don’t want to get a flu infection straight away, and the other way around as well. So for so many reasons, it’s a sensible thing to get the flu vaccine this year.

As has been outlined many times previously, the goal to “flatten the curve” in the earlier stages of the pandemic was about ensuring that Irish hospitals were not overwhelmed by Covid-19 patients. 

Influenza vaccines usually reduce the risk of infection by 40-60% and also reduce the severity of illness, therefore reducing hospitalisation and admissions to critical care units.

Much of the emphasis now in reducing cases of influenza this winter is to reduce the burden on hospital settings should Ireland experience greater Covid-19 hospitalisations. 

Roberts adds that flu vaccination should also ease pressure on Covid-19 testing, due to similarity of the symptoms of both infections. 

Because the symptoms of influenza and SARS-CoV-2 overlap so much, it’s really important that people get the flu vaccine to protect themselves against flu, so that we’re not putting extra strain on the health service in this particularly challenging winter.

“If you talk to your doctor about having symptoms and whether or not it’s flu or Covid-19, you’re going to have to get tested. So absolutely, it puts extra strain on that and in particular this year,” she says. 

Southern hemisphere

Because strains of influenza mutate throughout the year, some components of the flu vaccine are required to change, hence why immunisation must be repeated each year. 

This year’s seasonal flu vaccine contains protection against the four strains of flu virus that the World Health Organization (WHO) has said are most likely to be circulating.

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The WHO bases this analysis for the northern hemisphere on the strains that are circulating in the southern hemisphere, which is currently experiencing winter. 

Interestingly, this year has seen fewer cases of influenza in the southern hemisphere, likely due to the measures people have been taking against Covid-19 – measures such as social distancing, etc. 

“All the interventions that they put into place to prevent Covid-19 spreading, it looks as though it’s also prevented influenza virus spreading. So there’s been very few cases of influenza in the southern hemisphere for their winter, our summer,” Roberts says. 

That might mean that we’ll have a mild influenza season as well because our interventions blocking Covid-19 are also blocking influenza transmission.

“The problem with that is that, as we’re currently seeing, we’re struggling with intervention fatigue. We’re struggling with increasing numbers of SARS-CoV-2 transmission and therefore, there is uncertainty as to whether the northern hemisphere can reduce influenza transmission in the same way that the southern hemisphere has.”

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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