Concerns for vulnerable Hertfordshire residents as academics warn of national “complacency” towards the flu

Flu jab rates were below target for clinically vulnerable groups and the elderly in Hertfordshire last year, figures reveal, as the Government aims to increase vaccinations this autumn.

Thursday, 27th August 2020, 10:31 am
Updated Thursday, 27th August 2020, 10:34 am

The JPI Data Team found that in England while the uptake of the vaccine has remained steady among the over 65s - among the at-risk under 65s, rates are languishing well below World Health Organisation (WHO) set guidelines in recent years.

In Hertfordshire, 43.2 per cent of the under 65s at risk group took the vaccine, a decrease of 6.9 per cent since 2015, when 50.1 per cent were vaccinated. WHO says countries should aim for a 75 per cent take-up of the vaccine in vulnerable categories.

Over the past five years, the rate has been falling in England. In 2015, the average was six percentage points higher at 51 per cent.

Flu vaccination stock image

Free flu immunisation is being offered to millions more people this year in a bid to ease pressure on healthcare services in case Covid-19 continues into the winter. Targets for existing groups are also increasing.

In July, the government announced its plans for the “most comprehensive flu vaccination programme in UK history” in order to reduce pressure on the NHS this winter. It aims to double the number of people taking the vaccine from 15 million to 30 million.

Up until this year, the vaccine was eligible to those who were:

- 65 years old or over

- Pregnant

- Under 65 and living with underlying medical conditions such as chronic asthma, MS and diabetes.

- Living in a long-stay residential care home or another long-stay care facility

- Receiving a carer's allowance, or are the main carer for an elderly or disabled person whose welfare may be at risk if you fall ill.

The Government has decided to expand those eligible to receive it in 2020-21.

The vaccinations will be delivered in two stages. Stage one will see a free flu vaccine made available to people who are on the shielded patient list and members of their household as well as:

- All school year groups up to year 7

- All people aged over 65

- Pregnant women

- Under 65s with pre-existing conditions including at-risk under 2s.

The government says that once vaccination of the most ‘at-risk’ groups is under way, the department will work with clinicians to decide when to open the programme to invite people aged 50 to 64, with further details to be announced.

The NHS will contact people directly, including information about where to go to get the vaccine.

Director of the Vaccine Confidence Project, Professor Heidi Larson: “I think it’s pretty important this year because what the UK wouldn’t want is cases of people catching both flu and Covid-19. Both attack the respiratory system but Covid attacks a lot more organs than just the lungs. You wouldn’t want that double attack on the system.

“I find there is almost a complacency around the vaccine in the UK.

“It doesn’t have the same aggressive ‘anti’ sentiment we see against some of the childhood vaccines

“But I do think there a lot of perceptions around the vaccine in general and there is a degree of truth to them.

“There are also people that say it doesn’t work enough, it’s not effective enough. Some of these concerns aren’t wrong.

“Some years it really isn’t that effective against all strains. But I would certainly urge people to take it anyway as you wouldn’t want the strains that it does protect against.”

All the NHS trusts in Hertfordshire saw an increase in the number of health care workers that were vaccinated since 2015.

The uptake increased by 23 per cent at the East and North Hertfordshire NHS Trust, it increased by 30 per cent at the Hertfordshire Community Trust, Hertfordshire Partnership NHS Foundation Trust saw an increased uptake of 36 per cent and the West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust saw an increased uptake of 40 per cent.

Herts Valleys and East and North Herts CCGs, and the Integrated Care System for Herts and West Essex are encouraging people who are eligible for the flu vaccination, to take up the opportunity.

A spokesperson on behalf of the NHS in Hertfordshire said: “The flu vaccination offers important protection against flu, saves lives and helps to reduce the pressure on the NHS in the busy winter months.

"Expanding the programme is welcome to ensure a greater number of people are vaccinated but it is important that those usually at higher risk are protected first as they are likely to be more seriously affected by flu.

“It is really important that when you are invited, you take up the opportunity to have your flu vaccination. It’s the best way of protecting yourself and others against what can be a very serious illness.”

Vaccinations are already offered to all primary school children (4-11), and 68 per cent of those eligible in Hertfordshire were vaccinated last winter.

The nursery age (2-3) increased by 5.7 per cent from 2015, now 50.1 per cent were vaccinated in Hertfordshire.

Professor Larson wants to raise awareness and encourage more people to get the vaccine.

She said: "I do think the message needs to get out there in a big way.

“But the first thing they need to do if they are going to double the number, they had better be ready, if people are complaining that they can’t get hold of the vaccine when they want it it is going to put people off.

“I would never set a goal unless I had the advanced supply of the vaccine. The biggest trust breaker is to push, push, push for people to take the vaccine before running out. People will think 'why bother if you don’t do what’s advertised?'

“In many ways though - this could be a real opportunity for the government to increase the flu vaccine uptake. It’s important they don’t waste it.”