Vaccine delivery delays blamed as just half of elderly get flu jabs in Northern Ireland
Almost half of pensioners here had not received flu jabs from GPs by the start of December, it has emerged.
The revelation came as figures show a fall in the number of people who received their jab from doctors during the annual vaccination programme compared to the same period last year.
Statistics from the Public Health Agency (PHA) indicate that up to the end of November, uptake of free flu jabs was down across all age groups.
The over-65s category saw the biggest decline, from nearly 67% who got the jab in the same period in 2017 to 52% this year.
This age group includes those who were eligible for the new, more effective vaccine Fluad - for those aged 74 and over - which has been dogged by complaints about delays to supplies.
The PHA has previously been forced to make repeated assurances that the final batch of Fluad doses, which had been subject to a phased delivery in three batches due to "manufacturing constraints", would arrive this month.
The PHA stressed the figures do not include flu clinics from early December, "especially for those over 65 years of age", and thus would improve.
The statistics, which are provided only in percentages from data collected from 325 GP practices, show the numbers of pregnant women who availed of the free vaccine have also dipped to 43.5%, down from nearly 47%.
Uptake in the aged 65 and lower at-risk category has dropped from 48.2% to 41.7%, for toddlers between two and four it has dropped from nearly 50% to nearly 42%. Primary school-aged children also witnessed a slight decrease, from 75.3% to 75.1%.
Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA Rosemary Barton, who had criticised delays in flu jabs earlier this winter, said she was "very concerned" about the drop in elderly people being vaccinated.
"From mid-October until the third week in November, a number of surgeries in South Tyrone had great difficulty accessing vaccines for this age group which resulted in patients phoning surgeries week after week trying to make appointments to avail of the vaccine," she said. "This shortage of vaccine is extremely worrying and difficult to understand."
Dr Brendan O'Hare, who is based in Ms Barton's constituency, was critical of how flu jab supplies were handled this year.
"I'm not in the least surprised by the figures," he said. "The vaccine supply has been very poorly managed, intermittent and at times has been very difficult to get any momentum going with it.
"While I would be critical of how the vaccines have been supplied, I would still urge those eligible to come forward."
Lisburn SDLP councillor Mairia Cahill said both she and her elderly grandmother have been unable to get the flu jab.
Last year Ms Cahill ended up in hospital on a drip after contracting flu, and wanted to ensure she was vaccinated.
"I called into Boots at Sprucefield and the girl behind the counter said: 'No, we've run out, the stock is completely gone'.
"And we have been trying to get a flu jab for my grandmother for the past two months.
"In my family, the only one who has actually been vaccinated is my daughter - who got it at her school."
The PHA said it expects figures from early next year to reflect an increase in numbers receiving the flu jab.
Dr Jillian Johnston, consultant in health protection at the PHA, stressed that the latest available figures would not reflect flu clinics which took place in early December, "especially for those over 65 years of age".
"We anticipate that our uptake will improve in the end of December and end of January returns," she said.
She also urged all those eligible for the jab to ensure they avail of the vaccine each year as the flu virus is "unpredictable" and strains can "vary from year to year".
She added: "The vaccine is still the best protection people can have from flu this winter."