By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD
Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) is urging its staff to take their flu shots amid fresh warnings that low vaccination rates among health professionals could lead to vulnerable patients getting infected and dying. The NHS's employers, health trade unions and the Department of Health have launched a campaign to tackle low immunization rates among frontline staff such as doctors and nurses.
Dr Lindsey Davies, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health, the UK's public health doctors, said staff who did not get vaccinated against seasonal flu were guilty of “complete dereliction of duty” and could endanger the lives of at-risk patients such as babies, the elderly, pregnant women and those with breathing trouble.
Just 34.7% of healthcare workers got the jab last year, even though potentially fatal H1N1 swine flu was the predominant strain of flu over the winter months. That was up from the 26.4% who had it in 2009 but still well below the levels health experts say are necessary to minimize risk. But NHS figures released on Thursday show that in some places offering NHS care only tiny percentages of doctors and nurses were immunized last winter, even though the flu outbreak then led to more than 600 deaths.
For example, no doctor among the 41 associated with direct patient care working for Derby City primary care trust was vaccinated, while in Luton PCT just one of 145 doctors received a jab (0.7%) and in Heart of Birmingham PCT five of 328 doctors were vaccinated (1.5%). Other trusts with low proportions of doctors being vaccinated were Eastern and Coastal Kent PCT (2.1%), Northumberland care trust (2.3%), Lincolnshire Teaching PCT and Brent Teaching PCT (both 3.3%), Newcastle PCT (4.9%), and Manchester health and social care (4.9%).
Nurses had similarly low rates. Just 3.7% of nurses at Suffolk mental health partnership got vaccinated, as did 4.4% at Sussex Partnership foundation, 5.3% at Richmond and Twickenham PCT, 6.5% at Cambridgeshire community services, and 6.6% at Oxfordshire learning disability Trust. Fewer than one in 10 frontline health workers in some trusts were vaccinated. These included Heart of Birmingham PCT (5.2%), Sussex Partnership foundation (5.4), Richmond and Twickenham PCT (6.2), Hinchingbrooke Healthcare (6.9) and Oxfordshire learning disability (7).
“It's a complete dereliction of duty for any health professional not to have the flu vaccine because as well as having a duty to treat patients, they also have a duty to keep them from harm. And by not having the flu vaccine health professionals are at risk of a patient catching flu from them, and also they are at risk of being absent from work completely avoidably because they have flu,” Davies said. “If a vulnerable patient gets the flu, they could die, it's as simple as that. That's a danger at the moment. The patient isn't well to start with so if a doctor infects their patient – especially if they are chronically unwell, very elderly, pregnant, have a breathing condition or are a young baby – then that patient could die,” he said.
Davies was the Department of Health's senior official in charge of flu policy until last year. She also voiced deep disappointment that the department had decided not to mount an advertising campaign this year alerting the 16m people who are eligible for a free flu jab that it is now available. The health secretary, Andrew Lansley, was criticised last year for scrapping what had until then been an annual flu awareness campaign. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are all starting their own national campaigns to encourage take-up among their at-risk groups next month.
Thursday's new initiative is called the National NHS Staff Seasonal Flu Vaccine Campaign. It will build on the successful efforts made last winter by the NHS's north-west strategic health authority to motivate staff to get jabbed and make it easy for them to do so.