“Disappointing” uptake rates for vaccines protecting against winter respiratory viruses could have a serious impact on public health within weeks, the Health Service Executive has warned.
With a rise in winter viruses expected imminently, the HSE is urging eligible people, and especially healthcare workers, to get vaccinated against flu and Covid-19.
Just 11.5 per cent of HSE staff have availed of a Covid-19 booster, while 24.3 per cent have received the flu vaccine, according to new figures.
Meanwhile, just 18 per cent of 50-69 year-olds, who are eligible for a free Covid-19 booster, have received it. Even among those aged 70 and over, uptake is 49 per cent.
Among immunocompromised patients, another eligible group, only 10 per cent have had a Covid-19 vaccine this winter. Half of all patients currently in intensive care with the virus have not received a booster in the last six months.
Uptake of the flu vaccine is 59 per cent among those aged 70 and over, 18 per cent in 50-69 year-olds and 9.5 per cent in children aged two to 12.
“We are concerned that the uptake of the vaccines so far remains low, and that this may have a serious impact on public health in the coming weeks and months,” Dr Éamonn O’Moore, HSE director of national health protection said. “There is no room for complacency at this point.”
Flu rates are low at present and Covid-19 is stable, but children’s hospitals are already under pressure from a surge in respiratory syncytial virus cases.
Some 454 RSV cases were notified in the week up to November 12th, up from 433 cases the previous week, according to the Health Protection Surveillance Centre.
There were 213 patients in hospital – almost all of them children aged under one year – compared to 172 a week earlier.
Hospitals are already “feeling pressure” from RSV, Dr O’Moore acknowledged. Flu will peak from mid-December, he forecast.
“We are growing increasingly concerned by the disappointingly low vaccine uptake figures,” Dr Lucy Jessop, HSE national immunisation lead, said.
“Without vaccination, people who are immunocompromised are much more vulnerable to serious illness from flu and COVID-19. Uptake among heath and care workers is also lower than expected, which is alarming as they will be caring for patients, many of whom will have these viruses and we want to make sure they are protected.”
The flu vaccine is available free to those aged 65 and over, specific groups of vulnerable patients and children aged two to 12. The Covid-19 vaccine is recommended for those 50 and over, healthcare workers and specific groups of vulnerable people.
A pneumococcal vaccine is also available to those aged 65 and over, and at-risk groups. Vaccines against RSV have recently been developed but are not available through the public health system.