No EU country has yet reached the 75% target for seasonal influenza vaccination coverage rates among elderly people and at-risk groups, which was set by the EU Council in 2009.
In an event at the European Parliament on Tuesday (21 January), policymakers and health stakeholders took stock of the current situation, exchanging their views on why the EU is far away from its self-imposed goal.
Ten years on from the 2009 recommendation, things are improved but the EU average for coverage is still only around 44%. Some countries seem to be going backwards too, although others are putting in place a specific vaccination programme for elderly people.
“On one hand, it is time to celebrate the fact that some member states have upgraded their national immunisation programmes, on the other hand, there is still a lot to do,” said Martine Ingvorsen, a policy officer at the European Commission’s health directorate, DG Sante.
According to Spanish MEP Dolors Montserrat, improving vaccination coverage requires a combination of increasing awareness among healthcare professionals, fighting fake news and empowering patients.
“Vaccination is one of the most effective preventive measures we have, and we should bet on prevention,” she said.
According to Eurostat data, in 2017 the UK almost reached the EU goal with a rate of 72.6%, followed by the Netherlands (64%) and Portugal (60.8%). Estonia and Latvia were the worst performers in the EU on just 4.8% and 6.8%, respectively.
44% of those aged 65 and over in the EU vaccinated against influenza
— EU_Eurostat (@EU_Eurostat) December 9, 2019
With its national funded programme broadly applied at local level, Portugal is an example of successful action said Caroline S. Brown, Programme Area Manager for infectious hazard management at the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Portugal is still below the EU goal but coverage has been increasing in recent years, said Portuguese MEP for the socialist group (S&D) Sara Cerdas.
A medical doctor, she also stressed the need to fight misconceptions like the one that flu can be cured by antibiotics, which have also lead to the deadly threat of anti-microbial resistance (AMR).
Lucia Pastore Celentano of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said that recommendations to increase coverage of flu vaccination are in place in all member states and there is free access to vaccines too.
“In theory, political will is there but something is lost in translation,” she said, adding that there is a gap in implementing these recommendations as well as monitoring the efficiency of campaigns.
For her, the role of healthcare workers is crucial and more active engagement from them is strongly needed. “Citizens trust healthcare workers. if they’re hesitant, patients are hesitant too,” she said.
During the event, a new study on public perceptions of seasonal influenza disease and vaccination in four EU countries was presented by Professor Frederic Bouder of the University of Stavanger.
The study confirmed that people of all ages and in all the countries covered by the study are likely to follow the advice of their general practitioners.
Another outcome of the study is that, particularly in Germany, certain practices like washing hands frequently or avoiding handshakes are perceived as being as effective as vaccination in not contracting influenza.
The Commission’s Martine Ingvorsen also recalled the role of the EU in the fight against vaccine-preventable diseases, like the joint procurement mechanism for influenza vaccines in case of pandemics.
With 22 member states currently involved, the voluntary mechanism aims to improve countries’ preparedness to mitigate serious cross serious cross-border threats to health.
Since March, the Commission has also led a Coalition on Vaccination, bringing together European associations of healthcare workers and relevant students’ associations in the field.
Although a member state competence, the EU can do a lot to support the strengthening of the immunisation programme in the countries working very closely to national governments and with the help of Eu agencies and bodies like the ECDC or the European Medicine Agency (EMA), said Pastore Celentano.
An example is the launch of an information portal on vaccines at the next immunisation week, where workers can find information on benefits and side-effects, spreading also basic knowledge about vaccination in the general public.
[Edited by Sam Morgan]