Concern over drop in rate of at-risk adults getting flu jabs in Suffolk
Myths and concerns around the flu vaccine will need to be addressed "in a big way" if the Government is to double its uptake this winter.
That is because the proportion of the most vulnerable people taking the jab, including those in Suffolk , has been declining in recent years.
Charities and academics believe legitimate concerns around the side effects of vaccines, religious barriers and a “complacency” around the effects of flu are putting people off taking it.
And they say there is a particular problem among people under 65 with serious health conditions such as asthma and Multiple Sclerosis, where uptake is “worrying”.
Other experts say the government has failed to deliver an effective strategy in recent years - leaving it currently languishing below World Health Organisation-set targets.
What is the situation in Suffolk?
Analysis by the BBC's Shared Data Unit has found that the past five years in Suffolk, the percentage of people under 65 with a serious health condition who had the vaccine has dropped 1.1 per cent from 46.3 per cent in 2015 to 45.2 per cent in 2020 – although in 2018 the uptake rate grew to 49.2 per cent.
But analysis of rates for those of nursery age – two to three years – in the county has found the opposite effect, with uptake rates increasing in the past five years, from 43 per cent of those eligible in 2015 to 55.8 per cent in 2020.
This means that Suffolk is among the 25 per cent of English authorities which are meeting a 50 per cent vaccination rate ambition set by the government.
School vaccination has been expanding - last year it was introduced to year six pupils for the first time.
This year, of the estimated number of primary school age children eligible for the vaccine was 58,311. Of those, 35,274 were vaccinated, meaning the uptake rate was 60.5 per cent.
The government is aiming for a “universal” uptake of the flu vaccine among healthcare professionals - and the figures look to be heading in the right direction in Suffolk, where more than two-thirds of staff in some parts of the NHS took the jab during the last season.
Data from West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust shows that the rate of uptake has grown in the past five years from 55 in 2015-16 to 80 in 2019-20.
It has also increased at Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust from 41 in 2015-16 to 70 in 2019-20.
But there is not comparable data over the last five years for East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust, although we do know the rate of vaccine uptake was 64 in 2019-20.
What is the government's ambition?
The government announced its plans in July 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.
However, 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.
Why is it so important to get the vaccine this season?
Director of the Vaccine Confidence Project, Professor Heidi Larson said: “I think it’s pretty important this year because what the UK wouldn’t want is cases of people catching both flu and Covd-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.
“It’s also so important to limit the stress on the system."
Why is the uptake of the vaccine declining in certain at-risk categories?
Professor Larson said: “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.
“Part of the nasal vaccine for children contains traces of porcine gelatin, which has prevented many Muslim parents from taking it up.
“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.”
What does the government need to do to increase uptake?
Professor Larson 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.”