Swine flu: mass immunisation programme under way

A mass swine flu immunisation programme began on Wednesday with the country’s chief medical officer urging all priority groups to take up the offer of vaccination.
Sir Liam Donaldson, Chief Medical Officer for England, said it was important for frontline health and social care workers to get themselves vaccinated against swine flu along with other groups classified as a ”priority” or at risk.

He said: ”This is the first pandemic for which we have had a vaccine to protect people. I urge everyone in the priority groups to have the vaccine – it will help prevent people in clinical risk groups from getting swine flu and the complications that may arise from it.

”It’s important for frontline health and social care workers to have the vaccine. It will help prevent them and their families getting the virus from patients, it will stop them passing the virus onto their patients, it will potentially protect them from mutated strains and it will reduce the disruption to NHS services caused by people being absent due to illness.”

Sir Liam’s call came as a programme offering more than 11 million people the vaccine began with hospitals vaccinating frontline health care workers and their patients who fall into at risk categories against swine flu.

Around two million frontline health and social care workers will be offered the vaccine, as they are classified as at increased risk of infection and of transmitting the infection to susceptible patients.

The vaccination programme will be extended over the coming weeks with GP surgeries receiving deliveries from Monday.

The Department of Health said at risk groups will be given priority in the following order: people aged over six months and under 65 years in current seasonal flu vaccine clinical at risk groups; all pregnant women; household contacts of people with compromised immune systems and people aged 65 and over in the current seasonal flu vaccine clinical at risk groups.

The Department of Health said this did not include otherwise healthy over 65s, since they appeared to have some natural immunity to the virus.

Patients will be contacted by their GPs if they fall into one of the at risk categories, the Department said.

The GSK vaccine, Pandemrix, will be offered to the ”vast majority” with most people needing only one dose of this vaccine for protection.

The campaign comes after Sir Liam announced last week in his weekly briefing that the number of deaths of people in the UK suffering from swine flu has passed 100.

Health Protection Agency estimates released last Thursday showed about 37,000 people have contracted the virus so far in the UK.

Health Secretary Andy Burnham, who visits University College Hospital in London to launch the campaign today, said: ”Our best line of defence against swine flu is the vaccine.

”I’m very pleased to say that the UK is one of the first countries in the world to start vaccinating against this virus.

”The independent committee of experts in the UK has recommended that all those in the at risk groups should be offered the swine flu vaccine.

”It is also being offered to frontline health and social care workers to protect them and their patients and ensure the NHS is staffed should it come under pressure this winter.”

Dr Peter Carter, chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said the vaccine was safe and called for people to take it.

“We think it is essential that nurses and all other health workers, particularly those that come into contact with patients, should have the jab,” he told Radio 5 Live.

Asked about the safety of the vaccine, he said he was “entirely satisfied” because it had undergone “rigorous testing” and claimed he was prepared to take it, adding: “This is a safe vaccine.”

Dr Carter said he hoped nurses would take up the offer.

“It’s important for them to keep well so that they are available to care for patients in the normal run of things but if the pandemic really takes off we are going to need those nurses on the wards to help to cope with the influx of those that are seriously ill.”