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‘Selfish’ NHS staff risk infecting patients

23 September 2011

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Some frontline healthcare staff choose not to have a seasonal flu vaccination for fear it will “give them flu”, said a government immunisation expert.

Just one in three (34.7%) healthcare workers in England were vaccinated against flu last year.

Immunisation levels among staff varied widely between PCTs, with one showing as low as 10% and another reaching the “high 90s” said Prof David Salisbury, director of immunisations for the NHS.

Professor Dame Sally Davies, chief medical officer of the NHS, branded those doctors and nurses that fail to get vaccinated “selfish”.

“It is selfish of healthcare workers to not only fail to protect themselves but their patients from potentially infecting them [with flu],” she said.

Salisbury claims there are a whole “basket of problems” preventing doctors and nurses from having a flu vaccination.

They range from not viewing vaccines as “important enough” and not having the time, to believing the myth that the vaccine will cause flu.

“I find it quite a dilemma that [healthcare workers] will give advice to their patients and don’t see the need to protect themselves, their families and their patients,” he said.

In light of the low uptake of flu vaccines among frontline healthcare staff, NHS Employers is to launch the first ever national flu vaccination campaign for NHS workers.

“By working together we can achieve enough vaccinations to dramatically reduce the current high risk of flu spreading within the NHS,” said Dean Royles, director of the NHS Employers.

“This campaign will drive up vaccination rates by explaining it is safe, showing how important it is and helping local organisations to deliver jabs quickly and conveniently.

“We want staff vaccinations to eventually become as commonplace in the NHS as washing your hands.”

The World Health Organisation has advised H1N1, H3N2 and flu B strains will hit the UK this winter – the same strains as last year

In a bid to ensure the shortages seen last year are not repeated, the NHS has ordered an extra two million vaccines, bringing the total available to 16.7 million.

This includes a 400,000 reserve, dubbed an “insurance policy” by Salisbury, which will be centrally held and distributed as and when they are needed.

Following guidance from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), the NHS will again target three ‘risk groups’: those aged 65 and over, pregnant women and people with certain underlying health problems.

Last year 72.8% of those aged 65 and over received the vaccine. This is compared with 38% of all pregnant women and a 50% immunisation rate in the third ‘risk group’.

The controversial decision not to run a national advertising campaign has drawn criticism from the BMA.

The BMA believes that it is essential that at risk groups understand the importance of having the flu vaccine,” said a BMA spokesperson.

“In the absence of a national campaign, it is essential that local areas develop systems to target these groups.”

Despite acknowledging the boost in the number of pregnant woman thanks to media reports publicising the flu vaccine, both Davies and Salisbury defended the government’s decision.

“People listen to their GPs not the government,” said Davies.

“Evidence has shown that while advertising creates awareness, people are more likely to get vaccinated at the recommendation of their GP.”

Should frontline health workers be forced to have the flu vaccine? Your comments (terms and conditions apply):

“And when you leave the practice you get on the bus and sit next to someone who has not had the jab and coughs without covering their mouth…” – Name and address withheld

“Make the process of having the jab among staff easier and great awareness campaign within NHS” – Uchechukwu Ani, Aberdeen

“I think it is an individual choice as to whether they should have the flu vaccination, but calling our dedicated and already overworked staff ‘selfish’ is not going to help at all” – Carol Stanton, North West

“Yes, to protect their families as well as patients. I have had mine and encourage all my staff” – T Loftus, Lancashire

“No but I do think that those who want it should be able to obtain it in the workplace. We are a GP surgery and the PCT are advising that our staff go to a pharmacy or their own GP and are not reimbursing practices who give it to their front line staff” – Cheryl, Wakefield

“Yes my wife contracted swine flu in hospital and died because the intensive care nurses had not had the jab, they said it was useless” – P Barrett, Watford