Flu 'low' due to 'record uptake' of vaccine amid coronavirus pandemic

Closeup of doctor hand are vaccinations to patients using the syringe.Medical concept
Increased demand for the flu vaccine has helped reduce the virus' prevalence, data shows. (Stock, Getty Images)

Flu rates “remain low” amid the coronavirus pandemic, data shows.

The seasonal infection tends to circulate during the UK’s winter, putting the NHS under increased pressure.

Amid the coronavirus outbreak, however, flu rates are unseasonably low, which one expert puts down to a “record uptake” of its vaccine in certain age groups.

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Upset depressed young woman lying on couch feeling strong headache migraine, sad tired drowsy teenager exhausted girl resting trying to sleep after nervous tension and stress, somnolence concept
The coronavirus and flu both commonly cause a fever and dry cough. The latter can also trigger aching muscles, headaches, fatigue, a sore throat, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, insomnia and a loss of appetite. The coronavirus is also commonly associated with a loss of taste or smell. (Posed by a model, Getty Images)

In September, The BMJ reported the risk of death doubled if someone was infected with both the coronavirus and flu.

“One of these diseases is currently vaccine preventable and that’s the really important point,” Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, said at the time.

At-risk people – like pregnant women and the elderly – are always advised to have a flu vaccine during the UK’s autumn, before the virus starts circulating.

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Amid national restrictions, a coronavirus vaccine has long been hailed as a route back to life as we knew it.

While hundreds of jabs are under development worldwide, only the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been signed off in the UK, gaining approval on 2 December.

With staying healthy at the forefront of many people’s minds, Europe faced an “increased demand” for the flu vaccine, which initially outstripped supply.

Despite many vulnerable adults being immunised later than the recommended autumn, “flu vaccine uptake is higher in all groups compared to this time last year”, according to Public Health England (PHE).

The body’s data shows a negligible proportion of flu swabs came back positive between 7 and 13 December 2020.

This is compared to up to 15% for that week in 2019 and up to around 10% in 2018.

Several flu subtypes circulate every year, with the prevalence of infection varying for each subtype.

At the start of each year, the World Health Organization predicts which subtypes are most likely to be circulating the following winter.

It then recommends vaccine manufacturers make jabs that protect against these subtypes.

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“We have had an incredible flu vaccination programme so far, with record uptake in over-65s and two to three-year-olds,” said Dr Vanessa Saliba, head of flu at PHE.

“With over 30 million doses available this season, more people than ever are being offered a free flu vaccine.”

Early in the coronavirus outbreak, reports emerged other respiratory viruses – like colds – were down due to social distancing and greater awareness around preventative measures, such as hand washing.

Nevertheless, to reduce pressure on the NHS anyone aged 50 or over was entitled to a free flu jab from 1 December. This previously applied to people aged 65 or over.

“We are urging anyone who is eligible to take up the offer,” said Dr Saliba.

“By getting the jab, you can help protect yourself, your family and the NHS.

“It will help save lives.”

Watch: Flu down in US

Who is eligible for a free flu jab?

As well as the aforementioned age groups, the NHS flu jab is available free of charge for pregnant women, care home residents, carers, health workers, and people with certain medical conditions, like asthma or diabetes.

Jabs can be administered at a GP surgery or pharmacy that offers the service. Midwifery services are also available for pregnant women.

Pregnant women should have the jab no matter what trimester they are in.

A nasal spray vaccine is also available for children aged two to three on 31 August; who were therefore born between 1 September 2016 and 31 August 2018.

All primary school children, year seven students and youngsters with long-term health conditions can also get immunised.

Children under two at high risk of flu are offered an injection over a spray due to licensing regulations.

Childhood flu vaccines may be administered at a GP surgery, school or community clinic, depending on the youngster’s age and where they are educated.

Anyone else who wants to be immunised can pay to have the vaccine at a high street pharmacy. Boots charges £13.99, Lloyds Pharmacy £12.99 and Superdrug from £12.99.

While the vaccine should ideally be administered ahead of the flu season, the jab is effective while the virus is circulating.

It takes around two weeks for the body to produce immune-fighting antibodies against the infection, however, leaving a person at risk in the interim.

Watch: How the flu vaccine works