By extending the annual flu programme and making more people eligible for the free flu vaccine, the government has signaled the importance of keeping people well, not just making them better.
Inevitably, there will be challenges in implementing such a significant expansion of the UK’s immunisation programme. But that shouldn’t dissuade us from grasping a much wider opportunity to protect our precious NHS resources this, and every, winter.
Many of the UK’s most vulnerable adults are eligible for a range of vaccinations against infectious diseases – from pneumonia and shingles for the elderly, to whooping cough for pregnant women. But we’re currently failing to realise the true value of these vaccinations, with uptake falling below what it could be.
Unlocking the full potential of vaccination is an opportunity too important to miss. By ensuring more people take advantage of the vaccines they are eligible for, we can help protect millions of people to make sure our health system is better equipped to deal with a potential second wave of Covid-19.
However, in the last year in England, just one in eight people aged 65 were immunised against pneumonia. For younger people in “at risk” groups, uptake rates were as low as one in four for patients with illnesses such as chronic liver disease. And while those over 70 are eligible for vaccination against shingles, by the age of 76, around one in four are still unvaccinated. Even in the case of flu, many of those who were eligible last year failed to get vaccinated, including less than half of those in “higher risk” groups, from people with health conditions to pregnant women.
At the same time, patients, now more than ever, are switched on to what “being healthy” means and want to be empowered to make choices. And so, we’re going to have to work together, industry, government and the NHS, to encourage people to take advantage of the full range of vaccines available to help keep us well – and to offer them in locations that avoid overloading our GP surgeries. We also need to continue to dispel the unfounded myths and false claims about vaccines found online.
The people of the UK need to know that getting vaccinated is one of the simplest ways to stay healthy this winter. The message is clear. A population better protected from disease is within our reach. Where appropriate, we need to take advantage of every vaccine, including but not limited to flu. Boosting vaccination rates now will help keep our population healthy and well, reducing the need for medical intervention and hospital admissions, as well as alleviating the pressure on our hardworking NHS.
Dr Gillian Ellsbury is medical director for vaccines, Pfizer UK and Ireland