People aged over 65, pregnant women and residents of nursing homes are some of the at risk group whom the HSE West is urging to get vaccinated against flu this season.
Others in this category include children over six months of age with a long term illness requiring regular medical follow-up such as chronic lung disease, chronic heart disease, diabetes, or those with lower immunity due to disease or treatment, and residents of long stay facilities.
The health authority’s appeal comes as the findings of a European study warns that up to 1,000 people could die from flu related illness in Ireland during a severe flu outbreak.
Research by the HSE Health Protection Surveillance Centre, as part of a wider European study, estimates that over the last eight flu seasons between 200 and 500 people in Ireland died each year from flu related illness and up to 1000 people could die in a particularly severe flu season, according to the head of the HSE’s national immunisation office, Dr Brenda Corcoran.
“This study starkly highlights that flu can be a very serious and sometimes deadly illness, especially for people who are older or who have a long-term illness. The flu vaccine is the best defence against flu yet every year many people in the at risk groups fail to get vaccinated and so put themselves at risk of serious illness or even death.
“The vaccine reduces infection and associated illnesses and hospitalisation. Flu is very infectious and can cause potentially serious illnesses especially for older people, those who have a chronic illness, those with weakened immune systems and pregnant women. Seasonal flu vaccine can be given at any stage of pregnancy and also protects the baby.”
She says the flu vaccine cannot give you the flu as it does not contain any live flu virus. She appeals to those at risk to get vaccinated as soon as possible this year to make sure that they are protected.
“The symptoms of flu usually develop over a matter of a few hours and include a high temperature, sore muscles, dry cough, headache and sore throat. Flu is different from the common cold, which tends to come on more gradually and usually includes a runny nose and a normal temperature.”
Flu is spread by coughing and sneezing so people should cover their nose and mouth with a tissue, she recommends.
They should dispose of the tissue as soon as possible and wash their hands with soap and water to help prevent the spread of flu.
“Anyone who gets flu should stay at home, rest, drink plenty of fluids and use over-the-counter flu remedies to ease symptoms. People in high-risk categories should contact their GP if they develop flu symptoms,” says Dr Corcoran.
National uptake figures show that 56.9 percent of people aged 65 and over who hold a medical or GP visit card received the flu vaccine during the 2012-2013 flu season. This uptake rate is similar to that reported for the 2011/2012 season and is slightly below average compared to the reported uptake for the previous eight seasons. It is less than the World Health Organisation (WHO ) target of 75 per cent.
The vaccine and consultation are free for those with a medical card or GP visit card.
This year’s seasonal flu vaccine protects against the three common flu virus strains expected to be circulating this year based on advice from the WHO.
It is important for all those in the at-risk groups to be vaccinated again this year as the virus strains in the vaccine have changed since last year.
Seasonal flu vaccines are safe and have been given for more than 60 years to millions of people across the world. Reactions are generally mild and serious side effects are very rare.
Healthcare workers, including doctors, nurses, therapists and carers also need to get the seasonal flu vaccine every year. It is important that all those working in frontline healthcare protect themselves from getting the flu but also to prevent spreading the flu to vulnerable patients. Older and at risk patients may not get sufficient protection from the vaccine themselves so people who care for them need to be vaccinated. The flu vaccine is available free to healthcare workers from their local Occupational Health department.
In addition to seasonal flu vaccination, some people in the at-risk groups may also need pneumococcal vaccine which is available from GPs. Pneumococcal vaccine is not required every year – most people only need to get it once, so those at risk should check with their General Practitioner.
The HSE provides the flu and pneumococcal vaccine free of charge for all those in the at-risk groups.
People aged 18 years or older in the at-risk groups may attend either their GP or pharmacist for vaccination and those under 18 years should attend their GP. Those without a medical or GP visit card will be charged a consultation fee.