“No” to influenza vaccination costs thousands of lives

WHO/Cassandra Butu

Everyone who is over 65, has an underlying health problem, is pregnant or a health care worker should get vaccinated against influenza annually.

"Every year, up to 500 000 people around the globe die because of complications of influenza. About 10% of the deaths are in Europe. Many of those lives could have been saved with a simple action: getting the influenza shot", says Dr Caroline Brown, Programme Manager for Influenza and other respiratory pathogens at WHO/Europe. "Annually, at least 30 million people in the WHO European Region decide to get vaccinated against influenza. Everyone who is over 65, has an underlying health problem, is pregnant or is a health care worker should be one of them".

Over-65s and people with underlying health problems are most at risk

Influenza is always unpleasant, but it is usually mild, and most people recover quickly. However, influenza can occasionally cause severe disease or death. 

The people at greatest risk of serious complications of influenza are people over 65: eight out of ten influenza-related deaths are in this age group. This is because the immune system weakens with age and becomes less effective in fighting infections, including influenza. In addition, if a person already has heart problems, diabetes, chronic liver or kidney disease or a lung disorder, an influenza infection may worsen these conditions and be fatal. 

The most effective way to prevent influenza or severe outcomes is vaccination

WHO/Europe recommends that individuals over 65 and people with underlying health problems receive influenza vaccine every year. Influenza vaccines are safe, and the side-effects are minor, especially when compared with the much higher risk of complications from influenza. 

"Far too many over 65s and people with underlying health conditions are not aware of how flu can affect their health. They are complacent, and don't bother to get vaccinated. Thinking of influenza as a harmless disease is misguided, especially for these people. By getting the flu shot, they could reduce the risk of complications. This has to be done every year, not just once, as influenza viruses change. Here in Europe, the influenza season usually peaks in autumn and winter; thus, October is the optimal time to receive the vaccine", Caroline Brown concludes. 

Pregnant women and health care workers also need the yearly flu shot

WHO also recommends that pregnant women have yearly vaccination against influenza, as they are more prone to severe influenza, and this can have negative consequences for the fetus. What is more, influenza vaccination given during pregnancy can also protect the newborn baby from influenza in the first months of life.

Similarly, health care workers are considered a risk group as they are exposed to different types of virus every day, including the influenza virus, and need protection. 

WHO's flu awareness campaign in European countries

This year, several countries in Europe are focusing their efforts on high-risk groups. 

  • Croatia: During the influenza season, the Ministry of Health and WHO organize lectures and round-table discussions for citizens and health care workers about influenza and influenza vaccine. This year, family doctors are distributing flyers to people over 65 and to those with underlying conditions; they are also recommending vaccination through the media. 
  • Romania: WHO has produced a short TV video with the Association of Family Doctors to promote influenza vaccination among the four risk groups. 
  • Estonia: The Ministry of Social Affairs, the Health Board, WHO and health workers are piloting a new project this year to engage family doctors in targeting people over 65 and to sending them postcards with messages highlighting the importance of getting vaccinated. 
  • Poland: The National Institute of Public Health has invited journalists to a breakfast event to inform them about influenza and vaccination and why some people are more at risk than others. 
  • Latvia, Lithuania and Serbia are distributing posters and flyers to health centres at both national and local levels and have shared key messages through relevant websites.