A reminder has been issued by the Public Health Agency (PHA) for all people in “at risk” groups to get the winter flu vaccine, with a warning about the deadly dangers associated with catching the flu.
The call comes as figures show that excess winter deaths last year were the highest since 2009/10, when the swine flu pandemic was at its peak.
The uptake of the flu vaccine among these groups, which is made up of pregnant women and those with underlying health conditions such as asthma, is down on the same period last year. Just 40.5% of at risk people under 65 have received the vaccine, which is recommended to be administered before early December for greatest effectiveness against the flu strains.
Figures from the Northern Ireland Research and Statistics Agency show that in 2014/15 there were 870 excess winter deaths in Northern Ireland, the highest number since 2009/10.
The greatest single cause of death in this group (330) was respiratory illness, such as influenza and pneumonia.
Dr Richard Smithson, Consultant in Health Protection at the PHA, said: “These figures are a stark reminder that flu can contribute considerably to mortality. It may not be the main cause of death but can play a significant role in weakening the immune system, leaving people susceptible to other illnesses, particularly if you have an underlying condition.
“The failure to get the vaccine may be putting you and those around you at risk. The risk is not just that of spending a few days in bed with a sore head and runny nose – if you have an existing long-term medical condition contracting the flu can be deadly.
“The flu vaccine helps protect against several strains of seasonal flu, including H1N1 swine flu.
“Last year there was a mismatch between the make-up of the vaccine and the flu strains which emerged over the winter period, and that has been identified as a possible contributing factor to the high level of excess mortality. However, this year tests are indicating that there is a much better match between the vaccine and the circulating viruses which should give better protection.
“People need vaccinated now before it’s too late. It takes two weeks after receiving the vaccination to reach maximum protection against flu, so people need to act. If you wait until flu starts circulating, it may be too late for the vaccine to offer you protection.”
The vaccination rate for pre-school children aged two to four years is also low this year, with only 44% receiving the painless nasal spray compared to 50% at the same time last year.
Over half of over-65s (64%) have taken up the offer of the free vaccination, which is about the same number as this time last year and the vaccination uptake for primary school children has been just as good as last year, which was the highest in the UK.
Dr Smithson continued: “The flu vaccine remains the best way to protect against flu and those who are eligible should contact their GP if they haven’t had it yet. Get the vaccine and fight the flu.”
For more info on the flu vaccine, visit www.fluawareni.info and check out the PHA’s ‘Flu is more serious than you think’ leaflet at www.bit.ly/fluleaflet