The Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, has confirmed that an expanded flu vaccination programme will roll out this autumn.
All people in at-risk groups, which includes those over the age of 65, pregnant women and healthcare workers, will be able to access the vaccination without charge.
For the first time, children aged between two and 12 will also be able to access it without charge. The vaccine will be administered to children via nasal drops rather than an injection.
Flu season lasts in Ireland from October to April and each season, an average of 200-500 people die from the illness and thousands are hospitalised.
The aim of expanding the flu vaccine programme this year is to reduce the spread of flu and flu-related hospital admissions at a time when the health service is already under major strain as a result of COVID-19.
"The health service is entering a challenging winter period in the midst of a global pandemic. It's important that we make every effort collectively to limit the impact on the health service over the coming months.
"Limiting that impact and protecting the most vulnerable people in our society means that everyone who can get the flu vaccine should get it, and we are starting by making it accessible without charge to all in the at-risk groups," Minister Donnelly commented.
The vaccine will be available from GPs and pharmacists in the coming weeks. However Minister Donnelly acknowledged that there has been a "short delay" in the delivery of one flu vaccine from the manufacturer.
He said that this delay is likely to be about two weeks and it has been caused by an administrative delay that has affected customers across the world, not just in Ireland. The Minister emphasised that there is no issue with the manufacture or quality of the vaccine.
The doses for Ireland will be in the first batch of vaccines released and there is no impact on the delivery of vaccines for children, as these are coming from a different manufacturer.
The expanded vaccination programme was welcomed by pharmacists who noted that last flu season, over 4,000 people had to be hospitalised with the illness.
"That is more than were hospitalised with COVID-19, which should be a reminder of the serious nature of the illness. Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, we have consistently called for a significant investment in this year's national flu vaccination campaign. This is to keep people safe from flu and to protect our health system from its impact, so we can deal with the continuing impact of COVID-19," commented Darragh O'Loughlin, secretary general of the Irish Pharmacy Union.
He said that there "is no doubt" that expanding the vaccination programme will save lives and he urged people to get vaccinated as early as possible.
"The sooner we all get vaccinated the earlier we are protecting ourselves, our families and our entire communities. We can't yet stop COVID-19, but we have a vaccine to stop the flu and that is everyone's responsibility," he noted.
Meanwhile, Minister Donnelly also announced that special payments that are made to GPs to ensure that COVID-19 consultations remain free of charge to patients, are to continue.
"We know that early detection of COVID-19 cases is key in suppressing the disease in the community, even more so coming into winter, and so I'm glad this support will allow GPs to continue providing COVID-19 consultations free to their patients.
"It's very important that cost is not a barrier to anyone seeking testing, so I want to be clear that your telephone consultation with your GP to decide if you should be tested is free. The COVID-19 test, as well as any hospital treatment you may need, will also be free," he explained.
The Minister reminded people that if they have any symptoms of COVID-19, they should self-isolate and phone their GP straight away to arrange a test.
Symptoms include a high temperature, any kind of cough, shortness of breath or breathing difficulties, loss of or a change in your sense of smell or taste, or any flu-like symptoms.
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