Latest figures released by Public Health England suggest the NHS will fail to hit 75% uptake targets set by NHS England this winter.
A senior GP said patient awareness of the flu vaccine and its ability to prevent serious illness remained low despite practices’ best efforts. He called for a sustained media campaign to avoid the risk of a potential surge in flu cases swamping GP surgeries.
The NHS has been set the tough vaccination target of 75% uptake among eligible adults this winter, as officials aim to raise coverage in line with WHO recommendations.
Figures show uptake is currently 72.6% among the over 65s, the lowest at this point in winter since 2010/11.
Rates are even lower among at-risk patients under 65, with only 51% protected. Just 39.2% of pregnant women have had the jab, the lowest since 2011/12 when vaccination for these patients was introduced.
Source: Public Health England
Uptake is also poor among two- and three-year-olds at 42.4% and 39.1% respectively, although these groups are not subject to the 75% target this winter.
NHS England previously described last winter’s uptake rates as ‘disappointing’ and set out additional measures to boost coverage, but these appear to have made little difference.
With very few patients typically vaccinated after the New Year, it suggests the 75% target will again be missed this winter.
Risk of worsening situation
Berkshire GP and RCGP immunisation lead Dr George Kassianos said practices had done all they could to encourage patients to get vaccinated.
‘GPs have done their very best to contact their patients, many practices opened on convenient times like weekends, but still we have not achieved good and desirable influenza immunisation rates.’
He added: ‘We must continue vaccinating but the DH must also go out with a sustained media campaign promoting influenza prevention.
‘If not, we risk having a worse situation in GP surgeries and A&E departments in the next two to three months.’
Flu infections have remained low this season following a mild winter. However, rates of flu-like illness crept up to 17.3 per 100,000 in the south of England by the middle of January. Normal flu season activity is defined as 50 cases per 100,000 and above.
An NHS England spokeswoman said it had ‘adequately planned’ for the flu season and that it was ‘important that uptake rates are improved and maintained to reduce levels of morbidity and mortality’.
She said area teams had supported local services to improve uptake, alongside training materials and health promotion posters and leaflets from Public Health England.