Dr Michael McBride: Hundreds die here every winter, we must fight back
Getting the flu jab could be a matter of life and death. That's not rhetoric. It's based on hard facts. And the risk is not just personal.
If you get the flu, you could very well pass it on to your children, elderly relatives, friends and work colleagues. If you work in health and social care, you could put patients and other vulnerable people in harm's way.
In 2017, almost 330,000 of the nearly 890,000 people eligible for the flu vaccine did not go and get their flu vaccine. This is what the flu virus wants - it wants to spread, grow and multiply and we give it the perfect environment if we don't vaccinate those considered to be most at risk.
Last year in Northern Ireland, we saw one of the worst flu seasons in the last 10 years. According to the official figures, of those who ended up in hospital with the flu, 119 people were critically ill and needed intensive care and 22 of those people died. However, the true death rate from the flu is likely to be in the hundreds across the province.
These figures are far too high, we must fight back.
Here's what we are doing:
- We offer an extensive free vaccination programme which gives a vaccine to those most at risk - almost 890,000 people are eligible;
- We offer all children aged between two and 11 years of age a vaccine aimed at protecting them and which helps prevent the spread of the virus;
- We're making it as easy as possible for everyone eligible to get their free vaccine, from flu clinics in GPs to in-school programmes.
Because flu viruses change continuously, we have also invested heavily in this year's flu programme, introducing two new vaccines to offer even greater protection to those most at risk.
The Fluad vaccine will be offered to everyone aged 65 years and over in Northern Ireland.
It is expected to significantly boost effectiveness by improving the body's immune response to the vaccine.
Due to manufacturing constraints, Fluad is being distributed on a staggered basis across the UK.
Everyone eligible here will be able to get it by the end of November, well in advance of the traditional flu season.
While this might be a bit longer than previous years, there are very strong grounds for believing it is worth it.
It is estimated that switching to this vaccine could result in:
l 25 fewer deaths;
l 70 fewer hospital admissions;
l 1,000 fewer GP visits.
The second new flu vaccine is being offered to those in high risk groups and healthcare workers. It offers protection against four strains of flu rather than three, therefore offering additional protection.
We need your help. We need you to get your flu vaccine so that fewer people fall victim to the flu virus, fewer people become severely ill and fewer people die. If we can achieve this, we will also relieve some of the pressures across our hospitals over the winter months.
If you or your child are eligible for the flu vaccine, I would strongly encourage you to take up the offer. I will certainly be getting mine.
Keep us all healthy this winter - get the flu vaccine.
Michael McBride is chief medical officer