The COVID-19 pandemic took a devastating toll on individuals, health systems and economies. For many in the tourism sector, grounded flights and shuttered restaurants spelled economic disaster. Now, with almost all COVID-related restrictions eased, the appetite for travel is rising among a holiday-starved public.
However, some would-be travellers remain cautious about the safety of navigating airports and crowded tourist sites while COVID-19 continues to circulate. In Europe, most people aged over 65 years and those with chronic diseases are vaccinated.
But vaccine uptake remains uneven: younger people are much less likely to have received a COVID-19 booster vaccine, and there is still a clear divide between vaccination rates across Europe – with those in central and Eastern countries generally recording poorest uptake.
The pandemic has also highlighted the wider issue of protecting against other vaccine-preventable conditions, including influenza, shingles, herpes zoster and pneumococcal disease.
For most of these illnesses, vaccine uptake is low. This could have economic consequences: ensuring higher uptake rates for all recommended vaccines could enable higher rates of spending on tourism, while regions with strong vaccination may be more attractive to older and vulnerable travellers.
Unleashing the silver economy
Dr Daphné Holt, chair of the Coalition for Life-Course Vaccination (and a member of the Vaccines Today Editorial Board) believes vaccinating older consumers is economically important, as is vaccinating the hospitality workforce. Speaking at a webinar co-hosted by the CLCI and the International Centre for Longevity UK, she said an increase in post-COVID travel could help economies to recover some of the $4 trillion lost during the pandemic.
‘COVID-19 has shown the power of vaccination. After a slow start, Euorpeans responded well to the vaccination programmes, although there are stark differences between east and west,’ she said. ‘However, immunisation against flu remains below the WHO target of 75% for people over 65 years of age. For pneumococcal disease, uptake is even lower – barely reaching 30% in most countries.’
Dr Holt said spending on immunisation as a proportion of healthcare budgets is too low. Most European countries allocated less than 0.5% of health spending to immunisation before the pandemic. ‘Looking beyond COVID-19, vaccination programmes need to be properly funded and expanded to ensure older adults get vaccinated,’ she said. ‘We must make it easier to be vaccinated, by providing vaccines in locations such as pharmacies, community centres and places of worship.’
Sophia Dimitriadis, Senior Economist at ILC, emphasised the importance of considering health and economics together. She said investing in vaccination can support spending in the recreation and travel sector. ‘As populations age, there are huge economic opportunities, but health is essential for realising that potential growth in spending.’
People aged over 65 years of age account for a larger share of the population than ever before and each older person is spending more than in the past. People who are retired or semi-retired, but still in good health, spend particularly large portions of their income and savings on leisure and travel.
‘However, poor health is a barrier,’ Dimitriadis said. ‘We still see a significant drop in spending among people aged over 74, even where their income has not fallen. They have the means to spend more but they do not.’
To unlock this ‘longevity dividend’, she said investing in preventative health would have positive effects for individuals, health systems and the wider economy. A 1% increase in flu vaccination rates, supported by public funding, is associated with a 0.6% increase in the average annual spending by people aged 60 and older. Flu vaccination prevents sick days, saves on healthcare costs and provides opportunities to healthy older people to remain economically active.
For people affected by chronic conditions such diabetes, chronic lung conditions and cardiovascular disease, the risk of hospitalisation and ill-health following vaccine-preventable diseases can be significant. In addition, acute illness caused by flu and herpes zoster, for example, has been shown to increase the subsequent risk of heart attack, stroke and dementia.
Isabel de la Mata Barranco, Principal Advisor, Health and Crisis Management, DG SANTE – the European Commission’s executive arm, called on all stakeholders to play their part in normalising life-course immunisation. ‘Every contact with the health system is an opportunity to check vaccination status,’ she said. ‘We can also expand the opportunities to be vaccinated by exploring different venues for vaccination such as the workplace, pharmacist and informal health settings.’