Shortages in flu vaccine see clinics 'postponed' across Northern Ireland
FLU vaccine shortages will see clinics postponed across Northern Ireland because the region has run out of stock, health officials have admitted.
The Public Health Agency (PHA) has blamed "exceptionally high" worldwide demand for the seasonal inoculation - prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic - with an "unprecedented" more than half a million doses already distributed in Northern Ireland in the past few weeks - more than "the entirety of previous flu seasons".
A study in England carried out during the first coronavirus wave suggests that those infected with both flu and Covid-19 had a risk of death that was six times greater than the general population.
The figures show 43 per cent of those `co-infected' died, compared with 27 per cent of those who only tested positive for coronavirus.
Concern at the potential dangers of flu cases during the pandemic led to health officials securing extra free vaccines this year to extend the number of people covered, including the over 50s, household contacts of those with shielding letters, staff in independent care homes and Year 8 pupils.
The PHA has insisted the region will only see "a temporary pause on some aspects of the seasonal flu programme until further stock becomes available next month".
GP practices are being asked to keep using existing stock and notify the PHA of unused vaccine "to allow redistribution to other practices that may require it" and health and social care employers to "prioritise those working on the frontline".
Dr Gerry Waldron of the PHA described demand for the flu vaccine this year as "phenomenal" and insisted the agency is "pleased that people have acted on the call to get it to help protect themselves and their loved ones".
"With coronavirus also in circulation this year, it is even more important for key groups to get vaccinated.
"Primary care, pharmacy colleagues and (health) trusts have adapted admirably to the challenges of coronavirus to enable key groups to get vaccinated, and along with the rest of the UK we are now reaching full uptake of the allocated stock.
"It is important to note that more than half a million doses of flu vaccine have already been distributed in Northern Ireland - an unprecedented number at this stage of a seasonal flu vaccination programme. Indeed, we have distributed more vaccines in the past few weeks than the entirety of previous flu seasons."
He said the "temporary pause" will affect eligible people under 65 and there will be "additional controls for the distribution of the other flu vaccines until we receive further stock".
The PHA estimates ordering will reopen in mid-November, which Dr Waldron said is "well in time before we anticipate that flu will be circulating widely in the community".
The medic added that the steps which help protect against coronavirus - maintaining social distancing, washing hands regularly and wearing a face covering where appropriate - "will also help protect against flu".
People are being advised to wait for their GPs to contact them.
Further information on the 2020/ 2021 seasonal flu campaign see www.nidirect.gov.uk/articles/flu-vaccine