Record numbers of people will be offered a free flu jab this autumn as new research shows that those who contract flu and covid-19 together are more likely to die.
The research carried out by Public Health England suggests that the risk of death more than doubles for people who test positive for both the covid-19 virus and seasonal flu together, compared to those with covid-19 alone. While there is no vaccine yet against covid-19, free seasonal flu jabs have been offered on the NHS to vulnerable groups for many years.
Flu is a serious condition that kills, on average, 11,000 people in England each year and hospitalises many more. Adults at high risk from flu are also most at risk from covid-19. Research carried out earlier this year found that those with co-infection of the two viruses were more at risk of severe illness.
Most cases of co-infection were in older people and more than half of them died. It means that having the free flu vaccine is more important than ever to help protect the nation from a double threat this winter. The health system is working to provide the free flu jabs to 30 million people – the highest number on record.
The most vulnerable, including adults aged 65 and over, those with long-term health conditions and pregnant women, will be offered the flu vaccine first through their GP or pharmacy. All primary school children and, for the first time, Year 7 children will be offered the flu ‘nasal spray’ in schools to reduce community transmission, while two and three-year-olds will be offered the vaccine through their GP. It is important to vaccinate children as they are ‘super spreaders’ of flu.
The free flu jab will also be offered to household contacts of people on the NHS Shielded Patient List and all health and all social care workers who have direct contact with the people they care for. Once uptake has been maximised in the most at-risk groups, the newly eligible 50 to 64-year-olds will be invited for vaccination later in the season. Anyone who is 50 to 64 years old with long-term health conditions should be vaccinated earlier in the season, in line with all others in risk groups.
Overall, nearly two-thirds of eligible people received their free vaccine last year, making uptake rates in England among the highest in Europe. However, there is a worry that some people who have been isolating or shielding against covid-19 will be reluctant to venture out to have the flu vaccine.
Dr Yvonne Doyle, Medical Director at Public Health England, said: “It is dangerous to dismiss influenza as ‘just the flu’ – it can be extremely serious and can lead to hospitalisation, permanent disability or even death. The flu vaccine is more important than ever, to help reduce transmission of flu and protect the nation from the double threat of flu and covid-19. You may be offered it for the first time this year – it is important that you take up the offer to protect yourself and others.”
Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, added: “This year more than ever it’s vital that those eligible for the flu jab get it, so you can protect yourself, your family and the NHS. We’re pulling out all the stops to prepare for this uniquely challenging winter and we have enough vaccines for 30 million people this year, more than we’ve ever done before.
“With the simultaneous risk of flu and covid-19, make sure you get your flu jab if you’re eligible, don’t gather in groups larger than six and remember ‘Hands Face Space’ – so we can all look after each other.”
The unprecedented vaccine drive will be supported by a scaled-up marketing campaign across TV, radio and digital advertising. The ‘Just’ The Flu campaign, launching in early October, will reinforce the seriousness of flu, urge people to re-evaluate their own risk to the virus and remind people that vaccination is the best protection for themselves and those around them.
Even if you don’t qualify for a free flu jab on the NHS, many high street pharmacies (including those based in large supermarkets) offer the vaccine for a small charge. It is usually around £10 to £15, but you may have to book an appointment online.