Flu and COVID-19 vaccines – How you can get winter strong
Dr Jamie Lopez Bernal, Consultant Epidemiologist for Immunisation, UK Health Security Agency
UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) surveillance data from the final week of 2023 showed increased influenza activity across most measures, including hospital admissions, compared to the previous week. Flu can affect anyone but if you have a long-term health condition, the effects of flu can worsen your condition, even if it is well managed and you normally feel well.
Having both the COVID-19 and flu vaccine offers protection from these illnesses, decreases the likelihood of experiencing severe symptoms, and reduces the risk of requiring hospitalisation.
UKHSA statistics show that 49.1% of people under 65 years living with long term conditions received their flu jab last winter season. This year, we hope that number will be even higher so that more people get protection.
In winter 2022-23, people in the Pakistani, and black, African, Caribbean, or black British ethnic groups were roughly twice as likely to be hospitalised due to influenza compared to people in the white ethnic group. It is especially important for these groups to book their winter vaccines.
Flu spreads rapidly, especially in closed communities such as nursing homes and usually peaks during an 8–10-week period in winter. Those with a long-term health condition are, on average, eleven times as likely to die for flu-related reasons than those without a long-term condition, although this figure varies between specific conditions. Please visit the NHS website for a full list of who is eligible.
Last winter, getting vaccinated against flu cut the risk of being hospitalised by around:
- 66% in children
- 33% in other adults with long term health conditions
- 25% in adults aged 65 years and older
Flu viruses change over time and protection from the vaccines wanes, so it is important to get vaccinated each year. The World Health Organisation (WHO) monitors which kinds of flu viruses are circulating, and this information is used to create up to date vaccines each year.
Children with certain health conditions, even if well managed, are at higher risk of severe complications if they get flu. It is especially important that they are vaccinated too. They should have a flu vaccination (usually in the form of a nasal spray) every year from the age of six months onwards.
COVID-19 booster vaccine
The requirement for shielding and identifying people as clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) is no longer necessary. However, there are a small number of people whose immune systems means they may be at a higher risk of catching COVID-19. Some examples of people in this category are those with sickle cell disease, HIV/AIDS, and Parkinson’s disease. If you fall within one of these groups, you and others who live and/or care for you are eligible for free COVID-19 vaccines.
Being vaccinated means that the chance of catching COVID-19 is lower and, if you do catch the disease, the symptoms are likely to be less severe and the illness shorter. Data from last autumn’s COVID-19 programme showed that those who received a booster were around 53% less likely to be admitted to hospital with COVID-19 in the 2 to 4 weeks following vaccination, compared to those who did not receive a booster.
The COVID-19 vaccination programme closes on 31 January and the flu vaccination programme on 31 March. Take action now to get #WinterStrong.
Other useful links
- NHS guidance: Keep Warm Keep Well
- UKSHA blog: Get Winter Strong: revisiting respiratory infection guidance for a safer season
- UKHSA blog: Get Winter Strong: why having a flu vaccination matters
- UKHSA blog: Should we be worried about the new COVID-19 variant?
- UKHSA press release: UKHSA urges people from ethnic minority groups to protect themselves with vaccines
Dr Lopez Bernal is a consultant epidemiologist at the UK Health Security Agency and leads on COVID vaccines. He has led much of the UK’s pioneering work on real world evaluation of COVID vaccines. He has also previously led on influenza and other respiratory viruses.