The flu jab saves lives – make sure you have it, please

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By Frances Ryan

Last year not everyone entitled to a free vaccination got one. This government must take its share of the blame for that

It’s September, and that means headlines about flu season. It started with the news that NHS staff who refuse to have the flu jab may be moved to less high-risk units this winter in order to protect patients’ safety. This includes doctors and nurses in neonatal, high-dependency and intensive care, and those caring for patients who have compromised immunity because of cancer treatment. The move comes as an enhanced flu vaccine for people aged over 65 will be used for the first time in the UK this winter, with Public Health England saying this week the vaccine could reduce GP consultations by 30,000.

It’s an unprecedented decision, part of plans to cope with the extra pressure on the NHS this winter. But it is standard practice to push staff to get vaccinated. Last year, NHS bosses wrote to all 1.4 million staff to say they must have the winter flu jab, with staff who declined the jab having to tell the NHS trust that employs them why. That may seem like overkill, but it’s right for the very people we trust to care for us to be particularly vigilant.

To an otherwise healthy person, the flu may be nothing more than five days of feeling dreadful, but it’s a genuine threat to the lives of high-risk patients – and to an ever more squeezed NHS. A third of all admissions to hospital last winter were because of flu, in what the British Medical Association described as the worst winter on record.

I was one of the high-risk people who caught the flu last year. After six weeks of the virus, I found myself unable to breathe without a ventilator, swallow solids, or move my ribcage without pain. Extreme fatigue hit like suffocating fog, and it took me half a year before I was strong enough to leave the house. Nine months later, I’m still recovering.

I was, in some ways, lucky: a number of people lost their lives (three times more than the year before). Still, there’s often a cavalier attitude towards flu prevention in this country. UK sick days are now the lowest on record, as insecure workers feel the pressure to turn up even when they’re ill. Nor do we have a culture of minimising the spread of germs in public; how many of us have had a stranger project their phlegm on to us on the bus?.

The NHS does its bit by offering the flu jab free, to more than 20 million people in England (including pregnant women, people aged over 65, under-65s with an underlying medical condition, and young children) each year in the hope of preventing a flu epidemic. But uptake can be stubbornly low. By December last year, fewer than half of those eligible for a free winter flu jab had had one, with an even lower level among children (fewer than one in five reception pupils). Worse, less than half of NHS staff had had the jab by the end of October, including some GPs, despite NHS hospital trusts making determined efforts to persuade staff to get immunised.

This meant that last year, as a particularly dangerous strain took hold, the government consistently failed to meet its targets on flu vaccinations, with as many as 500,000 people missing out on the jab. Better availability and education will increase take-up, and, unpopular though it may be in a time of austerity, public funding is key to that. The government was accused last year of being “staggeringly complacent” over the threat of a flu outbreak as spending on publicity campaigns fell compared with when Labour was in power. This is short-term cost-cutting at its worst: when I’m well, I rarely use the NHS. Since I caught the flu, I’ve needed the ambulance service, A&E staff, a respiratory nurse, a respiratory consultant, and my GP.

Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, has previously called for more action to dispel public fears that the vaccine doesn’t work or is harmful, to persuade people not to “take a gamble with their health” – or other people’s – “when an effective vaccine is available”. The need for this education is even more pressing, given that there has been a huge surge in preventable diseases such as measles across Europe owing to low MMR vaccination rates, as anti-vaxxers regain influence and bots and Russian trolls use social media to spread misinformation about vaccines. Italy is a warning for where this backlash can lead: on Wednesday, 1,000 children with impaired immune systems in Bologna were forced to stay away from school owing to uncertainty over whether their classmates had received vaccines against viruses.

But additional steps such as the proposed NHS staffing rule should be taken too – and not just in hospitals. One reader told me last winter about having to turn away her mother’s agency carer at the door because she was full of flu. Her mother was in the middle of chemotherapy at the time. Care staff on pressurised hours and low pay can’t be blamed for not taking time off when ill (besides, up to three-quarters of people with flu have no symptoms, and so are spreading the infection without even knowing it) but as well as extending free jabs there need to be commonsense precautions over which staff are sent where; or, as in Australia, consider making the jab compulsory for care workers. As the months go on, stories of winter pressures on the health service seem inevitable. But needless flu deaths aren’t.

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