EU has recently had its another Flu Awareness Campaign Week. Among the COVID-19 pandemic many people forget that while the new coronavirus is causing havoc all across the world, seasonal flu still remains a serious risk.
Influenza „is a potentially serious disease that can lead to hospitalization and sometimes even death”, warns American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adding (for those unconvinced) that „millions of people get flu every year, hundreds of thousands of people are hospitalized and thousands to tens of thousands of people die from flu-related causes every year”.
Still, most of the European population tend to neglect the risk involved with influenza, treating it like a common cold. While both illnesses concern respiratory system and both are caused by viral infections, flu usually involves more intensive symptoms than cold and can have more serious complications, including bacterial pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections, but also congestive heart failure, asthma, or diabetes.
Just like with COVID-19, one can minimise the risk of getting infected with a flu virus by getting vaccinated. Although influenza vaccines are commonly accessible in most developed countries, it is still a minority of people that decide to get a jab.
How many elderly Europeans get vaccinated against flu?
In Europe, flu vaccines are particularly recommended for elderly people. This is because older people are more prone to develop serious complications when infected. „People 65 years and older are at higher risk of developing serious flu complications compared with young, healthy adults. This increased risk is due in part to changes in immune defenses with increasing age”, says CDC.
According to Eurostat, 41,4 per cent of EU-27’s 65+ population got vaccinated against influenza. The bloc’s leader is Ireland, where 68,5 per cent got jabbed, following by the Netherlands (62,7 per cent) and Portugal (60,8 per cent). Other countries where over half of the elderly population received a vaccine were Belgium, Greece, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, Malta and France.
The lowest vaccination rate among elderly people was reported in Slovakia (12,5 per cent), Estonia (10,2 per cent) and Latvia (only 7,7 per cent). The UK, which was still an EU member in 2018, had a higher rate than any of the countries that have remained in the European Union – 72 per cent.
ECDC: Upcoming flu season can be difficult
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has recently warned that Europe’s elderly could be facing a difficult flu season, which in combination with the next pandemic wave may strain health systems in the EU. This is because the strain that is circulating the most this year, A(H3N2), affects old people more and is linked to reduced flu vaccine efficacy.
„A steep rise in flu infections during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic could have serious consequences for the elderly and […] could place an additional burden on health systems already strained by COVID-19,” said head of the ECDC’s influenza program Pasi Penttinen.
He points out that vaccinations against both the COVID-19 and influenza provide protection against severe cause of both diseases. This applies particularly for the medical personnel and nursing homes workers.
EC: We need to prevent „twindemic”
The European Union strongly encourages the European citizens to get vaccinated not only against the COVID-19, but also against seasonal flu.
„As we move from autumn to winter, a time of the year where respiratory illnesses become more present, including seasonal influenza and of course COVID-19, we need to take action and ensure our health systems do not become overburdened”, said EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides ahead of the EU Flu Awareness Campaign Week. She stressed that „even without the pandemic, up to 40,000 people in the EU lose their lives each year due to influenza-related causes”.
„With the pandemic as a backdrop, flu vaccination is even more important and necessary than ever”, pointed out the Commissioner, emphasising that spreading of flu may even exacerbate the already tough epidemic situation. „With the circulation of both viruses” – the flu virus and SARS-CoV-2 – „we must prevent what could potentially become a “twindemic” of COVID-19 and flu”, she argued.
„As for COVID-19, vaccination is the most effective form of influenza prevention”, said Kyriakides, stressing the need to reduce inequalities among the EU member states when it comes to the share of the people vaccinated and encouraging Europeans „to start making flu vaccine appoitments”.
Coalition for Vaccination: Lead by example and get vaccinated
Also the Coalition for Vaccination, an organisation that brings together European associations of healthcare professionals and relevant student associations, points to the urgent necessity for Europeans to get vaccinated against influenza among the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. They notice that the flu infection level remained relatively low over the last year due to the measures taken worldwide to combat COVID-19, but loosening the restrictions may accelerate spreading of the flu virus.
„Therefore, European healthcare professionals highly recommend people, especiallythose belonging to an at-risk group, to adequately protect themselves from potential serious illness by getting a flu vaccine also this year. Moreover, it is crucial that people maintain hygiene measures and avoid unnecessary physical crowding”, the organisation says.
The Coalition for Vaccination appeals to the people to „lead by example” and not only get jabbed themselves, but also advising others, especially those most vulnerable, to get a vaccine, and provide „credible and reliable” information on vaccinations. The health service is requested to secure timely supply of vaccines so that every volunteer can get one and prevent disinformation concerning vaccines.