Recent news coverage has highlighted how the flu outbreak is adding to pressures on the NHS this winter. Whilst the UK has relatively high uptake of flu vaccination amongst older people, we still fail to meet the 75% target set by the WHO.
Across Europe the picture is far worse. Our report on health and austerity released at our Future of Ageing Conference last year revealed how flu vaccination coverage among older people has fallen across Europe between 2004 and 2014. (Public Health in Europe During the Austerity Years)
The fall in uptake was widespread and in some countries, quite dramatic. For instance, in Croatia the proportion vaccinated against flu fell from around 45% of people aged over 65 in 2004 to less than 20% by 2014. Only Denmark, Portugal, Germany and the UK increased levels of coverage during this time.
There are both health and economic reasons to raise vaccination coverage. Robust attempts to calculate the economic benefits of higher flu vaccination coverage are challenging due to the lack of good comparable data on flu hospitalisation and mortality, but credible efforts have been made.
In particular, Preaud et al find that between 1.6 and 1.7 million influenza cases could be prevented each year in Europe. This would mean half a million fewer general practitioner visits, 23,800-31,400 fewer hospitalisations, 9,800-14,300 fewer deaths, and avoidance of almost 1 million lost days of work. Overall, the authors estimate that between €190 million and €226 million could be saved every year .
This is an area where ILC-UK has long been interested. We were a founder member of the SAATI coalition, run an adult immunisation website and in 2013 published a report setting out ideas for increasing uptake of adult immunisations.
100 years ago the Spanish flu killed between 20 and 40 million people (more than the Great War). Perhaps now is the time to reflect on the huge progress we have made in reducing infectious disease over the past century.
This year we will explore what lessons we have learnt from the Spanish Flu 100 years ago and consider how we can ensure that complacency doesn’t undermine progress. We also plan to publish new research on how to increase uptake of the influenza vaccine. And we will publish new analysis on cost effectiveness of influenza vaccination.
It is clear that influenza has a huge impact on the NHS over winter. We hope that through our work over the next year we will be able to play a part in helping reduce this burden.