To overcome COVID-19, we need to show leadership on seasonal flu vaccination

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MEP Montserrat: "The objective of EU Flu Day is straightforward: we want to encourage citizens across the EU to get vaccinated against flu." [European Parliament]

As we approach the 2020-2021 winter season, we are facing a potential “twindemic” of COVID-19 and seasonal flu. That is why we need to show strong political leadership and take concrete policy measures to secure seasonal flu vaccine uptake, writes MEP Dolors Montserrat.

Dolors Montserrat is a member of the Group of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament. 

While the global research community continues its intensive efforts to develop and supply vaccines against COVID-19, we are hugely fortunate to already have vaccines against seasonal influenza.

But what is the point of having a flu vaccine available if we don’t use it? Flu vaccine coverage rates are (shockingly) dangerously low, particularly among at-risk groups like the over 65s, young children and those with existing comorbidities.

Since the World Health Organisation set a 75% coverage rate target for these groups in 2003 – endorsed by the EU Council in 2009 – uptake has stagnated or even declined. The latest data shows scores ranging from 7.7% to over 60%, putting the EU average at only 41% amongst the over 65s.

If we fail to turn the tide on seasonal flu vaccine uptake, I fear that we may be set for a winter in which COVID-19 has a far larger social and economic cost than it would otherwise.

Not only is flu itself deadly – it is estimated to cause up to 70,000 deaths in Europe each year – but it can also be a large driver of hospitalisation, creating additional strain on our healthcare systems, communities and economies. Issues that risk being exacerbated in a COVID-19 setting.

This is why, today, I am honoured to be launching this first EU Flu Day, which I hope will become an annual event at this time of year in future.

The objective of EU Flu Day is straightforward: we want to encourage citizens across the EU to get vaccinated against flu.

Flu vaccines are not just for at-risk groups. One key lesson from COVID-19 has been the importance of one of us taking steps to protect ourselves and thus the wider community.

We, as policymakers, have two key roles to play to achieve this objective.

First, we need to lead by example on the importance of getting vaccinated. Words are nothing without actions – and what better way to demonstrate this commitment to Europe’s citizens than by posting pictures receiving a flu vaccination.

I call on my colleagues in the European Parliament, as well as from member states and the Commission, to show strong political leadership. By doing this we can boost confidence in seasonal flu vaccines – as well as other vaccines – at a time when this is so important.

Second, we need to take necessary concrete policy measures to secure seasonal flu vaccine uptake, while balancing the considerations of implementing a vaccination programme during COVID-19.

Social distancing is one obvious challenge, given that vaccines need to be administered in-person.

Some best practices that policymakers should consider to overcome this include expanding access to vaccines through alternative healthcare settings (e.g. pharmacies, nursing homes, drive-throughs, schools, outside GP practices etc.), as well as communicating clearly with the public and healthcare professionals to raise awareness on the importance of seasonal flu vaccination, particularly in a COVID-19 setting.

And by the way, healthcare professionals also need to lead by example!

Furthermore, increased demand for seasonal flu vaccines is an encouraging sign, but millions of doses of flu vaccines cannot be produced overnight. Due to long lead times, vaccine manufacturers have been calling for demand planning a year in advance.

Therefore, we will not likely be able to vaccinate everybody on day one of the 2020/2021 influenza season.

Policy makers should look at ways to order flu vaccines a year in advance of manufacture and extend the window for vaccination, possibly into early 2021, as the peak of influenza infections commonly occurs in February with the main disease burden between January and March for the northern hemisphere.

Finally, we need to ensure that – if successful – any increases in seasonal flu vaccine uptake this year continue next year, as well as the years after that. A 41% average vaccine coverage rate is not high enough, and it shouldn’t have taken a global pandemic to make this clear.

This is why I hope that EU Flu Day – an initiative that I am starting from the European Parliament – will expand across countries in future years.

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