The Public Health Agency (PHA) is urging everyone who falls into an eligible group to get the free flu vaccine.
The calls comes as the agency launches this year’s flu vaccination programme, offering vaccines which are specially formulated to tackle the strains of the virus which are expected to be circulating this winter.
The flu vaccine campaign has been expanded to help reduce the spread of flu and lower flu-related hospital admissions at a time when the health service is under strain as a result of COVID-19. It’ll also help reduce the risk of contracting flu and coronavirus at the same time.
Dr David Irwin, Consultant in Health Protection at the PHA, said: “For most people flu is a very unpleasant illness, but in some cases and for those in ‘at risk’ groups it can be very dangerous and sometimes fatal. That is why we have a wide-ranging vaccination programme which helps protect groups at particular risk in our community.
“Northern Ireland has secured extra vaccine this year so that household contacts of those who received shielding letters during the coronavirus pandemic can request vaccination via their GP.
“Staff in independent care homes and schoolchildren in Year 8 – representing those who will be in the first year of secondary school from September 2020 – are also eligible for the free vaccine.”
Health Minister Robin Swann said:”It is extremely important that we take all necessary measures to help reduce the risk of the flu circulating alongside COVID-19 during autumn and winter, to protect ourselves, our families and those we come into contact with.
“Flu can present with similar symptoms to COVID-19 and therefore has the potential to complicate the vital work of the contact tracing and surveillance programme.
“There is also emerging evidence that co-infection with COVID-19 and flu may lead to a more severe illness. Reducing the pressure caused by seasonal flu will help preserve the capacity of the health and social care system to manage any future waves of COVID-19.”
GPs across Northern Ireland are offering flu vaccination to everyone over 65, pregnant women, carers at home, people under 65 with an underlying health condition, as in previous years. Contacts of those who were shielding can also get it at their GP.
Pre-school children aged two years or over on 1 September 2020 can get the vaccine at their GP’s surgery, while primary school children and Year 8 pupils will be offered it at school by the school health service. The kids’ vaccine comes in the form of a quick, painless spray up the nose rather than an injection.
The flu virus spreads through the air when people cough and sneeze without covering their nose and mouth. Because young children don’t always cover their noses or mouths, they can spread the flu virus very quickly, making them ‘super-spreaders’, so it is important that they avail of the vaccine to help protect them and those around them, including vulnerable members of their family and the wider community.
Dr Irwin continued: “With a second surge of coronavirus likely during the winter months we cannot afford to be complacent about getting the flu vaccine this year.
“Each year the strains of flu in circulation change, so new vaccines are formulated to reflect this. That is why it is so important that everyone who falls into an eligible category gets the vaccine annually – if you got it last year, it won’t cover you for this year’s flu season. Also, while it won’t protect you from COVID-19, it may stop people getting both illnesses and putting strain on health and social care services, not to mention reducing their risk to their own health.
“It takes approximately two weeks following vaccination to develop maximum protection against flu. Everyone who is eligible should aim to have their vaccine early, according to their GP surgery’s arrangements, and before flu activity generally increases. If you wait until cases of flu are widespread, it may be too late for the vaccine to offer you any protection.”
Everyone who is eligible for vaccination should make themselves aware of their own GP surgery’s flu vaccination arrangements particularly with extra measures in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 this year such as restrictions on numbers who can meet in one place and social distancing. By working with surgeries’ schedules, people who are eligible to receive the vaccine can help ensure that it can be given to everyone in a timely manner.
The PHA has also developed an animation which provides lots of information on the flu vaccine, including tips on how to reduce the spread of flu and flu-like illnesses and tackling flu myths. The video will be available through online channels and is available at www.pha.site/fluanimation .
Dr Irwin concluded: “The flu vaccine does not give you the flu. It is offered as the best protection for ‘at risk’ groups because if they get flu, they are more likely to have severe illness and develop complications such as pneumonia, which can be life-threatening. It’s free, it’s quick, and it could make a big difference to your health and the health of those close to you.
“The message is clear – don’t take the risk; get the vaccine.”