Health staff key to preventing flu in older people

Gary Finnegan

Gary Finnegan

May 7th, 2015

Gary Finnegan
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vaccines2Flu vaccination rates are too low but rise with age, according to a new long-term study. This highlights the need for doctors and nurses to be vaccinated to protect vulnerable older people.

A symposium on adult immunisation during the International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics European Region Congress in Dublin has heard calls for mandatory vaccination of some healthcare workers.

Experts said that flu vaccination appears to rise as people age but uptake is still too low. This means outbreaks in nursing homes and hospitals can have a devastating impact.

European countries aim to vaccinate 75% of people in high risk groups, including those aged 65 and older, but just two countries – the UK and the Netherlands – have reached this target.

Long-term view

Dr Anne Nolan, Research Director at TILDA – The Irish LongituDinal Study on Ageing (TILDA – said longitudinal studies can offer deep insights into healthy ageing and its determinants.

The TILDA project has been tracking 8,504 people since 2010 when all participants were aged at least 50 years of age. A detailed survey is conducted every two years covering health, economic and social indicators. A health assessment is included in every second wave.

The study revealed that flu vaccination uptake in Ireland in the over 50s was 50% in the first round of the research, rising to 57% in the second wave. Flu immunisation rates increase with age and there is evidence that eligibility for free vaccination increases uptake.

“Where there are incentives or where barriers to access are removed, uptake is higher,” Dr Nolan explained.

She said rising life expectancy is a “huge achievement” and should not be viewed negatively.

“Demographic change is a challenge and an opportunity. Policymakers and researchers have a responsibility to make sure our later years are happy, healthy and productive.”

‘No jab, no job?

While vaccination rates may increase with age, the effectiveness of flu vaccination can wane in older people as boosting the immune system becomes more difficult. This makes vaccination even more important for people dealing with vulnerable older people – especially in hospitals and nursing homes.

Dr Emer Shelley, a consultant in public health medicine and a lecturer at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) said measures were needed to increase flu vaccine coverage among healthcare staff. “The older people get, the less likely they are to benefit from a response to the flu vaccine. We really need staff to be vaccinated but it is still at a low level.”

Dr Shelley offered a solution which might help to reduce the spread of flu in healthcare settings such as hospitals and nursing homes: “Agency staff should not be permitted to work in any health facility without being vaccinated. They are powerful spreaders of the virus.”

She added that awareness of pneumococcal vaccination and shingles vaccine is very low, even among health professionals working with at-risk populations. 

What do you think? Should flu vaccination be mandatory of healthcare workers caring for older people?