This year’s national flu vaccine campaign has been launched to encourage patients deemed most at risk from the virus to get immunised.
The campaign will run from today for the next four weeks and will target pregnant women, children aged two to four and anyone with a long-term condition or weakened immune system.
It will encourage those eligible for the free NHS vaccine to contact their GP or pharmacist about receiving it, to prepare for the winter months.
“It is essential that people take steps to protect themselves during the winter months”
This year, a nasal spray containing the vaccine that was launched in 2013 for two and three year-olds is now available for four-year-olds as well.
However, figures from a survey carried out for Public Health England for by consultancy group TNS showed that almost half of mothers who had children aged between two and four were unaware of the new spray.
People with an underlying health condition – particularly chronic respiratory conditions such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease, or those with a weakened immune system – are around 11 times more likely to die if they contract flu, compared to those without an existing health problem, according to figures from the Health Protection Agency.
However, only 52% of people aged six months to 65 years old with an underlying condition putting them at risk of infection received a free flu vaccine during 2013-14, PHE said.
Meanwhile, expectant mothers should be encouraged to get the vaccine because pregnancy naturally weakens the body’s immune system, increasing the risk of both mother and unborn child becoming seriously ill, added PHE.
Last winter, PHE said it received reports of 904 people admitted to intensive care or high dependency units with confirmed flu, of which 11% (98 people) died.
It acknowledged that last year’s flu season was “less severe than some” but cautioned that flu was “an unpredictable virus” and it was “impossible to predict” the impact of the disease this winter.
Professor Dame Sally Davies, chief medical officer for England, said: “Flu is a really unpleasant illness, particularly for our most vulnerable patients and it is essential that people take steps to protect themselves during the winter months.”
She added: “I also urge all healthcare workers to make they are vaccinated to protect themselves, their patients and their families.”
A separate annual campaign targeting flu vaccination among health professionals has already started.
The Flu Fighter campaign, which is run by NHS Employers, is underway in NHS trusts throughout England and Wales.
Now in its fourth year, a wide range of free, support and fully updated materials were launched in September to back the campaign.
Last year a total of 534,090 (54.8%) frontline NHS staff were vaccinated against flu, up from 359,080 (34.7%) in 2010-11.