Many newspapers have reported that due to a shortage of flu vaccine, the government is breaking out stocks of ‘old vaccine’ from last year.
Is there enough seasonal flu vaccine?
What is ‘old vaccine’?
It is simply pandemic vaccine that was stockpiled last year during the swine flu pandemic. The best before date on the vaccine is for the end of 2011 so it is still effective. The virus which it immunises against, H1N1, has not substantially changed or mutated since last year and so the vaccine still works.
Will pandemic vaccine protect against all the flu strains this winter?
No. just H1N1 (swine flu). However, H1N1 is the main type of flu going around this season and vaccinating people with the H1N1 vaccine will protect them against what is causing the most illness. Most of the deaths this season have been related to H1N1 (45 of 50 deaths since October).
Who gets the pandemic vaccine?
People in ‘at-risk’ groups for whom the seasonal vaccine is not available will receive it.
The Interim Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, said to the BBC:
“If [people] are in an at-risk group and there is seasonal flu vaccine available, then of course they will be given that. But in a few places, we understand that they haven’t got any left. In which case, better to have this one that will save lives, and then later on, if necessary, go back for the full seasonal flu vaccination.”
Are more people getting ill from flu this season?
There are high but not unusual levels of people getting flu, and the numbers are not at epidemic levels. There are some indications that the number of people with flu has peaked, but as the figures that are being used are for the Christmas period, when GPs surgeries were shut some days, it is difficult to be sure. Next week’s report will give a better idea of whether or not the flu season has peaked and is starting to decline.
Is the flu affecting different people this season?
Older people are usually more at risk of seasonal flu and having a more serious illness than younger people. However, one of the characteristics of H1N1 is that it seems to affect younger people more than older people. One theory for this is that older people were exposed to a similar strain of the virus earlier in their lives and so have some immunity to H1N1.
Many of the people who have died from flu this season have been under 65, but also had other conditions.
What is the actual number of deaths?
The HPA publishes a weekly report on the number of people visiting their GP with flu-like symptoms and the number of severe and fatal cases.
Of the 50 people who have died from flu since October, 45 had H1N1 and five had Influenza B. The majority were under 65 years of age – eight people were between five and 14 years old, 33 people were aged 15-64 and four people were 65 or over. Since October there have been five deaths in children under the age of five.
Where information is available on those who died, 33 out of 48 (69%) were in an ‘at-risk’ group. Of the 39 people who had information available on whether they had the seasonal flu vaccine, only three had received the jab.
These numbers may not include everybody who has died from flu, or flu-related complications, this season. It is also possible that some of the people who have died with flu, but appeared otherwise healthy, had other conditions that had not yet been diagnosed.
Conditions that put you at higher risk of flu
The seasonal flu jab is offered free of charge to anyone over the age of six months with the following medical conditions, as they are at higher risk of catching flu:
- chronic (long-term) respiratory disease, such as severe asthma, COPD or bronchitis
- chronic heart disease, such as heart failure
- chronic kidney disease
- chronic liver disease
- chronic neurological disease, such as Parkinson’s disease or motor neurone disease
- a weakened immune system due to disease (such as HIV/AIDS) or treatment (such as cancer treatment)
Regular immunisation (vaccination) is given free of charge to the following at-risk people, to protect them from seasonal flu:
- people aged 65 or over
- pregnant women (see below)
- people with a serious medical condition (see box, right)
- people living in a residential or nursing home
- the main carers for an elderly or disabled person whose welfare may be at risk if the carer becomes ill
- healthcare or social care professionals directly involved in patient care
- those who work in close contact with poultry, such as chickens
This winter (2010-11), the seasonal flu vaccine will be offered to all pregnant women at any stage of pregnancy. This includes pregnant women not in the high-risk groups.
Usually, only pregnant women in high-risk groups are offered the seasonal flu vaccine.
For more information on flu immunisation, including background information on the vaccine and how you can get the jab, see Seasonal flu jab.
How do I get vaccinated?
If you think you need to be vaccinated, check with your doctor, nurse or local pharmacist.