Asthma is the most common chronic illness in children. COPD is the fourth leading cause of death among adults. Both of these lung diseases put patients at risk of serious complications if infected with respiratory viruses such as influenza and COVID-19.
- Influenza can make asthma and COPD much worse
- Infection increases risk of hospitalisation
- Patients and healthcare workers should be vaccinated before flu season
- Experts warn that flu and COVID-19 likely to spike in the coming months
For people with asthma, flu can cause inflammation of the lungs and trigger asthma attacks. ‘Flu infection puts asthma patients at higher risk of pneumonia and hospitalisation,’ according to Susanna Palkonen, European Federation of Allergies and Airways Diseases ‒ a patient advocacy organisation supporting people with allergy, asthma and COPD in 26 countries.
‘People with COPD are more likely to catch respiratory infections, including colds, flu and pneumonia,’ she told an EU Flu Day webinar. ‘Exacerbation of COPD is always serious and can lead to permanent decline and increased hospitalisation.’
Ms Palkonen said that while an EFA survey of patients shows 68% of people with asthma or COPD view vaccines as an important preventative tool, too little is being done to reach out to patients and improve flu vaccination rates.
She expressed concern that, after an increase in flu vaccination rates during the COVID-19 pandemic, Europe is ‘going back to business as usual’. ‘We need to wake up, she said. ‘Vaccination must be part of the healthcare plan for every patient with asthma and COPD.’
Better data for better policy
EU Flu Day, organised by the Steering Group on Influenza Vaccination, also heard calls for better data on flu outbreaks and flu vaccine uptake across Europe. Dolors Montserrat, a Spanish MEP, said real-time information would help policymakers take decisive action to target undervaccinated risk groups. ‘We also need robust data to allow comparisons between regions and between EU Member States,’ she said. ‘Flu is a real public health threat and it needs to be prioritised accordingly. Member States need to act but we also need an EU approach since viruses know no borders.’
Her call for improved data systems was echoed by Dr Richard Pebody, WHO Regional Officer for Europe, who said ‘a high quality monitoring system’ would allow countries to benchmark vaccination programmes against one another and to learn from good practices. He also warned that Europe may see more flu cases this winter compared to previous years when pandemic-related restrictions suppressed the spread of respiratory viruses. ‘Flu hasn’t gone away,’ he said. ‘We are starting to mix again; starting to travel. We’re concerned that this winter we may see a busy flu season.’
There is growing concern that Europe could face a ‘twindemic’ of flu and COVID-19 this winter. The possibility that patients may be simultaneously infected with influenza and SARS-CoV-2 (which causes COVID-19) was raised by Professor Ab Osterhaus of the European Scientific Working Group on Influenza (ESWI). ‘We have seen in the southern hemisphere that when flu and COVID come together in one patient, mortality is very high,’ he said. ‘My message to people in risk groups, and to healthcare workers, is simple: get vaccinated.’
Vulnerable patients, including older people, people who are immunocompromised, and those with diabetes, heart conditions and lung diseases, are a key concern for EU Commissioner Stella Kyriakides, WHO Regional Director for Europe Dr Hans Kluge, and Director of the ECDC Dr Andrea Ammon.
In a joint statement, they said the resurgence of flu is expected. ‘In light of this, we reconfirm the need to protect people’s health, especially the most vulnerable, using all the available tools, including vaccination… The potential co-circulation of COVID-19 and seasonal influenza will put vulnerable people at increased risk of severe illness and death, with the likelihood of increased pressure on both hospitals and healthcare workers, already exhausted from almost three years on the frontlines of the pandemic.’
They urged countries in the European region to prioritise protecting the most vulnerable groups by co-administering influenza and COVID-19 vaccines whenever feasible. For patients with asthma and COPD, vaccination could be a life-saver.