Health workers first to get swine flu jabs

Frontline healthcare workers, pregnant women and people with underlying medical conditions will be first in Northern Ireland to receive the swine flu vaccine when the Government’s mass immunisation programme begins in the autumn.

Health Michael McGimpsey said the province was due to receive about 132,000 doses of the vaccine by the end of September and 528,000 by the end of October but would be immunising people in priority groups such as those who suffer chronic heart disease, renal disease, liver disease, neurological conditions, diabetes and the pregnant.

People living in households with patients with suppressed immune systems and those over 65 in conventional at-risk groups will then be eligible and a decision on whether to immunise healthy people would be taken at a later date.

Mr McGimpsey said these priority groups had been selected because they are at higher risk of severe illness from swine flu. To date in Northern Ireland there have been 97 confirmed cases of swine flu with just over 7,000 antiviral courses being prescribed by GPs.

Last week Coleraine-born soldier Lee Porter (30) became the first Ulster person to die from the H1N1 virus. The 30-year-old had been in the south of England at a training camp when he contracted the bug and died.

Said Mr McGimpsey: “There has been a noticeable decrease in swine flu cases across the UK. In Northern Ireland, figures remain higher than normal for the time of year but are now showing slight reductions.

“While the figures may be decreasing, it is expected that there will be a surge of cases in the autumn and it is essential that our population is protected. We are publishing the Joint Committee for Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) advice, simultaneously in all four nations, about the priority groups for H1N1 vaccine.

“Ministers have accepted this advice and are now working with British Medical Association, NHS and Health and Social Care organisations to reach a comprehensive swine flu vaccine implementation plan for this first stage of the programme.

“Preparations continue to be made to extend the programme beyond these initial priority groups.”

Licences for the vaccines are expected from the European Medicines Agency (EMEA) at the end of September/beginning of October which means the vaccination of the priority groups programme should begin in October and be completed by around late November.

Added the minister: “Vaccines will arrive on a phased basis throughout the year and in sufficient quantities to ensure the entire population of Northern Ireland is vaccinated, if needed.

“The Joint Committee for Vaccination and Immunisation has advised that the vaccination programme should not begin until the vaccine is licensed, which is expected around the end of September.

“My first priority is to protect the health and well-being of the population. I want to be assured that this vaccine is safe and effective, particularly before it is given to vulnerable groups.”