Doctors are warning that this year’s influenza outbreak could have serious implications for public health. Due to Covid-19, the winter of 2020 passed with relatively few cases of flu. Between January 1 and August 31 2020, there were only 394 deaths from influenza. On average, the flu kills 11,000 people each year.
In that same period, there were 48,168 deaths due to the coronavirus (Covid-19) and 13,619 deaths due to pneumonia. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the number of positive influenza samples in the Northern hemisphere was down by 99%.
The restrictions on social interactions meant that the yearly flu outbreak in 2020 largely went unnoticed. So, when it returns this year, doctors fear that the flu has the potential to wreak havoc. For this reason, doctors want to get the vaccination programme underway as soon as possible. However, problems are already cropping up.
What is the situation?
The beginning of September normally sees the UK begin its annual flu vaccine rollout. This year, delays are already hampering its progress. Due to a shortage of Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs), the rollout is two weeks behind schedule.
Sequirus, one of the UK’s largest providers of flu vaccines, announced that there were ‘unforeseen challenges linked with road freight delays’. Large numbers of HGV drivers have returned to their homelands in the EU during the pandemic. They have not since returned.
Due to these delays, doctors are cancelling appointments to receive the flu vaccine. Patients will be able to reschedule their appointments. However, doctors still need to make up for the lost time, increasing the pressure on the NHS.
Due to Covid-19, the NHS has been under severe strain for the last 18 months. At various points, the NHS was close to being overwhelmed with cases of Covid. More recently, the ‘pingdemic’ led to staff shortages among NHS workers.
With the arrival of autumn, the NHS faces the prospect of high numbers of Covid and flu cases. The threat of the two compounds the problem facing healthcare workers. Now, the shortage of flu vaccines is hamstringing the preparations for the flu outbreak.
As a result, doctors are sounding the alarm. Sakthi Karunanithi, Director of Public Health for Lancashire, was asked about how the delays would affect public health:
‘But the more we delay, the wider the implications. Especially as we want to get more people vaccinated this year and we have expanded the cohorts.’
Dr Gary Howsam, the vice-chair of the Royal College of GPs, echoed these concerns:
‘It is essential that as many people as possible in at-risk groups get their vaccination as early into the flu season as possible. A delay of even a couple of weeks is going to have a big impact on practices and their patients.’
It is not just the UK that is facing a challenging flu situation. In the US, one study is predicting that the 2021-2022 flu season could see between 100,000 to 400,000 more flu hospitalisations compared to normal years. To counteract the surge in hospitalisations, vaccinations rates for flu will need to be 20 to 50% higher.
35 million people are eligible for a free flu vaccine this year, including secondary school students up to Year 11. This total amounts to over half of the UK population. The government called it the ‘biggest flu vaccination programme in UK history’.
Despite the delay, the government wants to encourage vaccine uptake. Health Secretary Sajid Javid said:
‘The phenomenal scale of the Covid-19 vaccination programme is a clear demonstration of the positive impact vaccination can make and I encourage all those eligible to get their flu jab when called forward.’
For those who are not eligible for the free vaccination, there are other options. Across the UK, pharmacies are offering the vaccine. Some supermarkets are providing vaccine services. Asda will offer the jab at their in-store pharmacies for £8. Jabs at Tesco will cost £9.
Independent pharmacies will also provide people with a flu vaccine. The cost at Superdrug is £13.99, whilst Lloyds Pharmacy and Boots are charging £14.99. More information is available on the respective websites. Bookings will open at different points in September.
The prospect of rising Covid cases and an influenza outbreak has the potential to do real damage to the NHS. However, a flu jab is the best way to protect against the virus and the NHS. Therefore, it is vital that people take up the opportunity to receive their vaccination. Otherwise, the NHS could find itself in a similar predicament to last winter.
About the Author: James Hingley
James Hingley is a contributing Features Writer with extensive expertise in International Relations, Politics and Culture.
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