Despite the flu jab being offered for free, vaccination rates have fallen year on year since it was first introduced. Last year’s rate was at 70.5 per cent among the over 65’s, compared to 74 per cent in 2011. This could mean around 500,000 older people could enter the winter months needlessly unprotected, risking an outbreak of the magnitude seen in the southern hemisphere over the last few months.

Across Australia, a particularly virulent strain of the H3N2 flu virus triggered a record number of cases, around two and a half times more than there were in 2016. By the end of September, 72 flu related deaths had been recorded, mainly among elderly people. If you’re over 65 yourself, or have a relative that is eligible for the free vaccine, it’s important to think carefully about choosing not to get vaccinated, and to know the facts about the benefits of the flu jab so that you can make an informed decision.

Who should get it?

The flu vaccine is a free of charge treatment for people who are most at risk. Those who are eligible to get it for free on the NHS include:

  • People over 65, or who will turn 65 before 31st March 2018
  • Anyone who is pregnant
  • Those with particular medical conditions including diabetes and heart conditions
  • People living in residential care homes
  • Those who are caring for elderly or disabled people

Those who don’t fall into these categories can pay to have a flu vaccine privately. The cost varies depending on the provider, but should never cost more than £20 per vaccine.

Does it work?

Many arguments against the flu vaccine claim it doesn’t work, but the fact show a different trend. Although health authorities can only guess at the strains of flu we might experience in the winter, so far they have achieved a 40 – 60 per cent success rate historically. This means that by getting the flu jab, you will be reducing your risk of contracting flu by 40 – 60 per cent compared to someone who hasn’t got the jab.

In general, historical records show that getting the flu jab can:

  • Reduce the likelihood of you contracting flu
  • Reduce the severity of the illness if you do contract it
  • Reduce hospitalisation rates among elderly people
  • Protect vulnerable people around you

The flu vaccine cannot, however, protect you entirely against all types of flu, or against other viruses which may exhibit flu-like symptoms. It is more effective against influenza A and influenza B of the H1N1 types than it is against the H3N2 strains of the virus, as this strain tends to mutate more regularly. However, overall the effectiveness is as good as can be expected, with research ongoing to improve the vaccine in the future.

Helping your elderly relative to get the flu vaccine

Various misconceptions about the flu jab have reduced the number of older people getting their shot each year. Many think that the flu jab is actually making them ill, which is not the case. Although the vaccine does contain strains of the virus, they are dead and cannot cause an infection. By introducing these harmless dead viruses in the vaccine, the body’s immune system can create the right antibodies to protect against any more incoming viruses of that type.

Some older people report feeling achy or running a mild fever for a day or two, symptoms that are associated with this type of immune response. But these symptoms will quickly disappear, leaving that person more well equipped to cope with any outbreaks of flu during that winter. It is crucial we encourage older people to take the flu vaccine, as it is our best defence against seasonal flu and, in the case of frail or vulnerable people, could end up saving their life.

If you care for an older person who is reluctant to go for their flu jab, you should present them with the facts to start. Explain how the vaccine is made, and that it is impossible for them to become sick as a result of the jab. Show them the evidence of its effectiveness, and discuss the potential risks associated with not taking up the vaccine, and – of course – consult their doctor.

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