Ireland must start planning for next winter's flu season now, so that the illness does not overwhelm the health service, pharmacists have said.
The flu season in Ireland usually runs from October until the end of April. Every year, between 200 and 500 people die as a result and thousands are hospitalised.
According to the Irish Pharmacy Union (IPU), now is the time to come up with a robust plan to deal with the illness, as the health service is typically busier during the winter anyway, and now COVID-19 must be considered as well.
"The flu season, which just ended, led to the hospitalisation of over 4,000 people in Ireland. Next year we must do everything in our power to reduce the impact of flu to preserve capacity in our health system, particularly as the uncertainty surrounding the impact of COVID-19 remains.
"To achieve this, is it vital that the planning starts now. The complex process of procuring adequate national stocks of seasonal flu vaccines will shortly begin and our public health officials must show ambition in this regard," commented IPU vice president and community pharmacist, Eoghan Hanly.
He pointed out that as a society, we have all learned a lot about concepts such as community transmission, social distancing and herd immunity over the last few months.
"These previously alien concepts are now well understood. We must now seize the opportunity presented by this greater levels of public understanding and step up the fight against the perennial problem of seasonal flu," Mr Hanly said.
The Department of Health's chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan, has already outlined the need to vaccinate early and in more significant numbers for the upcoming 2020/21 flu season. Mr Hanly said that pharmacists will have a key role to play in this.
The IPU has made the following recommendations for the upcoming flu season:
-The flu vaccine should be made available free of charge to everyone over six months of age
-Pharmacists should be allowed to administer flu vaccines outside of the pharmacy setting, e.g. in nursing homes and workplaces, as this would increase the efficiencies of the system
-A public information campaign should be launched to raise awareness about the availability and importance of children receiving the flu vaccine.
"As the world waits with hope for a vaccine against COVID-19, it should be seen as everyone's responsibility to build collective immunity against flu. The best way to do this is through widespread vaccination.
"Ireland performs well by EU comparisons, but we still fall short of the target of 75% of people over the age of 65 availing of the vaccine. Making the vaccine free for everyone and improving its accessibility would send a powerful message about its importance to public health," Mr Hanly suggested.
Last year, over 1.1 million flu vaccines were administered in Ireland. The number of people availing of the vaccine has increased significantly since pharmacies were first permitted to administer it a decade ago.
"This shows that increasing the convenience and availability of the vaccine has yielded extremely positive results. Pharmacist vaccination services should now be extended by allowing pharmacists to administer the vaccine outside of pharmacies, for example in nursing homes, community centres or workplaces.
"We can't yet stop the coronavirus, but we can stop the flu," Mr Hanly added.
Discussions on this topic are now closed.