The Public Health Agency (PHA) is urging everyone who falls into an eligible group to get the free flu vaccine, with the aim of boosting your immunity this winter.
The call comes as the agency launches this year’s flu vaccination programme, offering vaccines which are specially formulated to tackle the strains of the virus which are expected to be circulating this winter.
The ‘Boost your Immunity this Winter’ campaign combines the flu vaccine programme with the COVID-19 vaccine programme to help reduce the spread of flu and COVID-19 and lower hospital-related admissions for both. This is particularly important at this time when the health service is under severe strain.
Dr David Irwin, Consultant in Health Protection at the PHA, said: “Flu activity levels were extremely low globally in 2020 to 2021, mainly due to COVID-19 prevention measures. As a result, a lower level of population immunity against flu is expected this year. Now that restrictions have eased, it is expected that winter 2021 to 2022 will be the first winter in the UK when seasonal flu will co-circulate alongside COVID-19.
“For most people flu is a very unpleasant illness, but in some cases and for those in ‘at risk’ groups it can be very dangerous and sometimes fatal. That is why we have a wide-ranging vaccination programme which helps protect groups at particular risk in our community.
“This year will see a further roll out of the free flu vaccination programme to include school children up to year 12. Also this year the vaccine will be offered to 50 to 64 year olds from the start of the campaign.”
Health Minister Robin Swann said: “Last year saw the roll out of the biggest Health and Social Care influenza vaccination programme ever, with the aim of offering protection to as many eligible people as possible during the coronavirus pandemic and this year we have expanded the programme even further.
“Seasonal influenza and COVID-19 viruses have the potential to add substantially to the winter pressures usually faced by the HSC, particularly if infection waves from both viruses coincide. Therefore it is more important than ever that we take all necessary measures to help reduce the risk of flu circulating alongside COVID-19 during autumn and winter, to help protect ourselves, our families and those we come into contact with.”
In addition to most children and adults being eligible for the free flu vaccine, some groups will also be eligible for a first dose COVID vaccine or booster. Flu and COVID-19 can both be life-threatening and spread more easily in winter, when we are more likely to be crowded together inside. Getting vaccinated is the most effective way to boost our natural immunity and protect ourselves from these viruses.
Dr Irwin continued: “With the predicted surge of flu likely during the winter months we cannot afford to be complacent about getting the flu vaccine this year.
“Each year the strains of flu in circulation change, so new vaccines are formulated to reflect this. That is why it is so important that everyone who falls into an eligible category gets the vaccine annually – even if you got it last year, that won’t cover you for this year’s flu season.
“It takes approximately two weeks following vaccination to develop maximum protection against flu. Everyone who is eligible should aim to have their vaccine when called, and before flu activity generally increases. If you wait until cases of flu are widespread, it may be too late for the vaccine to offer you any protection.
“Given that the two vaccination programmes will be running at the same time, with slightly different arrangements and eligible groups for each, we are urging people to work with our health service, whether it’s the school nursing service, your GP surgery, community pharmacy or other route of vaccination, so that both programmes can be delivered in a timely and well-managed way.”
Everyone who is eligible for vaccination should make themselves aware of their own GP surgery’s or community pharmacist’s flu vaccination arrangements, or look out for the consent form for their children coming home in school bags.
Dr Irwin concluded: “The flu vaccine cannot give you the flu. It is offered as the best protection for ‘at risk’ groups because if they get flu, they are more likely to have severe illness and develop complications such as pneumonia, which can be life-threatening.
“It’s free, it’s quick, and it could make a big difference to your health and the health of those close to you.
“The message is clear –if you’re eligible for either the flu vaccine, COVID-19 vaccine or both boost your immunity this winter and take up the offer when invited.”
Eligible groups for flu vaccine in 2021 to 2022 are:
- All preschool children aged 2 to 4 years on 1 September 2021
- All primary and secondary (up to year 12) school children
- Those aged 6 months to 2 years and 16 to 49 years in clinical risk groups
- Pregnant women
- Those aged 50 years and over
- Those in long-stay residential care homes
- Close contacts of immunocompromised individuals
For further information on who is eligible to boost your immunity this winter see www.nidirect.gov.uk/articles/flu-vaccine