Photograph: Hackney Council.

Health professionals are urging all City and Hackney residents at higher risk from developing severe seasonal flu to receive their free flu jab this year, as data shows that the area has seen one of the largest five-year drops in vaccinations among at-risk under-65s in England.

Concern has been widespread as the capital begins to see a second wave of coronavirus infections over the health system’s ability to handle flu season at the same time.

Now a BBC Shared Data Unit investigation has shown that, according to Public Health England data, City & Hackney has seen an 11.5 percentage point drop in uptake of the flu jab among at-risk under-65s over the past five years, the fourth highest drop in England. Newham had the highest at 16.7 per cent.

London and the east of England had the lowest regional uptake among the under-65s at risk, according to the latest figures, with health practices in both regions averaging an uptake of 41.6 per cent. The World Health Organisation says countries should aim for a 75 per cent take-up of the vaccine in vulnerable categories.

Professor Heidi Larson, director of the Vaccine Confidence Project, said: “I think it’s pretty important [to get the vaccine] this year because what the UK wouldn’t want is cases of people catching both flu and Covid-19. Both attack the respiratory system but Covid attacks a lot more organs than just the lungs. You wouldn’t want that double attack on the system. 

“It’s also so important to limit the stress on the system. Two or three years ago the Red Cross had to come in to handle a bad flu season on its own. 

“I find there is almost a complacency around the vaccine in the UK. It doesn’t have the same aggressive ‘anti’ sentiment we see against some of the childhood vaccines. But I do think there a lot of perceptions around the vaccine in general and there is a degree of truth to them.

“Part of the nasal vaccine for children contains traces of porcine gelatin, which has prevented many Muslim parents from taking it up. There are also people that say it doesn’t work enough, it’s not effective enough. Some of these concerns aren’t wrong.

“Some years it really isn’t that effective against all strains. But I would certainly urge people to take it anyway as you wouldn’t want the strains that it does protect against.”

While it is not known what is specifically driving the drop-off rates locally, on a national level concerns around the side effects of vaccines, religious barriers and complacency around the effects of the flu could be contributing factors to the drop-off in uptake for vulnerable under-65s, with rates remaining steady among those over 65.

While anyone can catch the flu, it is a much worse illness for people at higher risk, with a vaccination able to protect from the flu and thus avoiding putting pressure on the NHS, according to local health bosses.

People most at risk from flu and eligible for a free flu jab from September include:

  • all adults 65 and over
  • all children aged 2 to 11
  • people with certain medical conditions making them at risk (including children in at-risk groups from 6 months of age)
    • chronic (long-term) respiratory disease, such as severe asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or bronchitis
    • chronic heart disease, such as heart failure
    • chronic kidney disease
    • chronic liver disease
    • chronic neurological disease, such as Parkinson’s disease or motor neurone disease
    • learning disability
    • diabetes
    • a weakened immune system due to disease (such as HIV/AIDS) or treatment (such as cancer treatment)
    • morbidly obese (defined as BMI of 40 and above)
  • all pregnant women
  • people living with someone who’s at high risk from coronavirus (on the NHS shielded patient list)
  • all frontline health or social care workers
  • adults aged 50 to 64 may also be eligible later on in the season, with more details on this to follow

In a joint statement, Dr Sandra Husbands, director of public health for Hackney and the City, and Dr Deborah Colvin of City and Hackney GP Confederation, said: “It is more important than ever this year that eligible people are getting the flu vaccination to prevent a spike in flu cases and a possible second spike of coronavirus happening at the same time, causing a lot of illness and overwhelming the NHS this winter.

“The flu vaccine protects the individual but also stops flu spreading around the community. We have a vaccination for the flu, something we don’t yet have for coronavirus.

“Flu vaccinations have saved millions of people over the years from catching the flu, which means less illness and fewer GP appointments and hospital admissions, so we can spare the NHS this winter.

“So do your bit for community immunity this winter, get the flu vaccine, stay safe, protect your community and save the NHS.”

Cllr Chris Kennedy, who leads on health for the council, said: “Flu can have serious consequences and vulnerable people can die of it. Having the vaccine protects you, and helps reduce transmission to others.

“With Covid-19 still circulating, we need to help reduce all avoidable risks. Vaccinating more people will help reduce flu transmission and stop people becoming ill. The flu vaccine is the best defence we have against what can be a serious and even deadly illness.

“This winter, more people than ever will be offered a free flu vaccine. We are urging anyone who is eligible to take up the offer of vaccination. By getting the jab, you can help protect yourself, your family and the NHS – it will help save lives.”

You can help prevent the spread of flu (and coronavirus) by covering your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze, washing your hands frequently or using hand gels, and throwing any used tissues in the bin as soon as possible.

Speak to your GP, practice nurse or pharmacist today to book a vaccination appointment, to get the best possible protection.

If you are concerned about visiting your GP or pharmacy because of coronavirus, please feel reassured that our healthcare services have all the necessary protocols in place to protect you and can answer any questions you may have.

They may also be able to make alternative arrangements if you think you may struggle to get to a GP surgery or pharmacy.

Support us

The coronavirus outbreak meant that the Hackney Citizen was unable to print a monthly newspaper for three months.

We're grateful that we have since been able to resume printing. This would not have been possible without the generosity of our readers, whose donations kept the paper from disappearing completely at a distressing time for residents.

A huge thank you to everyone who gave their time and money to support us through the lockdown, and to those who continue to do so as we slowly recover from the dramatic fall in advertising revenues, on top of the existing challenges threatening the future of local journalism.

A one-off donation or a regular contribution from anyone who can afford it will help our small team keep the newspaper in print and the website running in the coming months and years.

Find out how you can donate.

Thank you for your support, and stay safe.

The Hackney Citizen team