Speech by Micheál Martin T.D., Minister for Health and Children, at the launch of the Influenza Immunisation Campaign, 26 September 2001, Irish College of General Practitioners

Firstly, I would like to thank the Office for Heath Gain for inviting me to formally launch this year´s influenza immunisation campaign.

As you are all aware influenza is a highly infectious viral disease that impacts on all age groups. It is characterised by the abrupt onset of symptoms such as headache, fever, muscle pain, cough and sore throat. While those who are in good health will usually recover from influenza in two to seven days, there are others for whom the disease is much more severe. In those with underlying disease, especially the elderly, complications are common and hospitalisation rates high. Considerable resources are devoted each year to treating patients in hospital who contract influenza and develop complications. The elderly contribute between 80 – 90% of reported deaths from influenza.

Influenza vaccine provides up to 90% protection against the disease and it is highly effective against the complications of influenza. Its impact in reducing mortality from influenza in older people is well documented. Protection lasts about one year therefore it is important that at risk people are vaccinated annually against the most recent strains.

Influenza vaccine contains inactivated influenza virus and therefore cannot cause influenza. It does however take 10 -14 days to start protecting recipients against the disease. I would therefore encourage all those for whom immunisation is recommended to avail of the vaccine at the earliest possible opportunity.

The advice of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland is that the ideal time for vaccination is September/October, however, the vaccine can be administered throughout the winter months.

Influenza vaccine is available free of charge from general practitioners to medical card holders at risk of contracting the disease. The at risk groups include persons aged 65 years or older; those with specific chronic illness such as chronic heart, lung or kidney disease, as well as those with a suppressed immune system. For persons in the at risk groups complications arising from influenza such as pneumonia are common and can be fatal particularly in the elderly.

With the extension this year of the medical card scheme to all persons aged 70 years and over, it is anticipated that there will be an increased demand for the influenza vaccine in this group.

I would like to assure medical card holders in the at risk groups that they will be able to obtain their influenza immunisation completely free of charge from their GP.

In circumstances where a patient is in the at risk groups but not a medical card holder, there is no charge for the actual vaccine as this is provided free of charge to general practitioners from health board supplies. However, the fee for administering the vaccine in such cases is a matter between the general practitioner and the patient.

The Immunisation Advisory Committee of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland advises that influenza vaccine should be considered for all health care workers who have direct patient contact in both the community and in health care institutions such as hospitals and nursing homes. My Department has asked the health boards to promote the annual immunisation, against influenza, of health care workers.

The influenza vaccination programme has been greatly enhanced in recent years. The quantity of vaccine available under the programme has increased from 300,000 doses in the 1999/2000 campaign to in excess of 500,000 for the campaign which I am launching today.

The increased uptake of the vaccine in recent years has resulted in a higher proportion of at risk patients being protected against the virus compared to earlier years.

This will be the second year of influenza surveillance using computerised sentinel general practices in Ireland. The National Disease Surveillance Centre has worked on this project in collaboration with the Irish College of General Practitioners and the National Virus Reference Laboratory. The objective of the project is to monitor consultations for influenza-like illnesses over the October to May period, to identify the viruses in circulation and to estimate the effect of the vaccination programme. The 2000/2001 project, which was funded by my Department, has produced valuable information regarding influenza activity in Ireland. Influenza surveillance is essential in order to minimise the impact of this potentially fatal infection, especially in the high risk groups. I would like to thank all those concerned for the efforts which have been put into this project and to request their continued support in the coming season.

Last year I established a committee, chaired by Professor William Hall, Director of the Virus Reference Laboratory, to draw up plans to address any future influenza pandemic. This would be where there is a dramatic increase in the incidence of influenza worldwide. I also asked this committee to consider issues which arise in relation to the more regular outbreaks of influenza, and how our health services might best be prepared for these. I understand that work on the preparation of the pandemic plan is at an advanced stage and the committee is expected to present the plan later this year.

I would also like to take this opportunity to urge those in the at risk groups who have not previously been vaccinated against pneumococcal disease to avail of this vaccine in addition to the influenza vaccine. This vaccine is also available free of charge from general practitioners to medical card holders at risk of contracting the disease. The at-risk groups are similar to those at risk of contracting influenza and include those with asplenia or severe dysfunction of the spleen. A significant difference between the influenza and pneumococcal vaccines is that while the flu vaccine must be repeated annually, this is not necessary for pneumococcal vaccine because it provides longer term immunity.

I would again urge those at risk of contracting influenza, especially those over 65, to attend their general practitioner for immunisation as soon as possible. Vaccine has already been distributed to health boards and GP practices throughout the country. I would also urge general practitioners to ensure that the at risk patients in their practice are contacted and invited to attend for vaccination as soon as possible.

I would like to conclude by again thanking the Office for Health Gain for organising this years campaign and to thank all of those involved in the campaign at local, regional and national level for the effort involved. It is particularly fitting that this years launch is at the premises of the Irish College of General Practitioners, given the central and critical role of the general practitioner in the immunisation programme.

Press Release on launch of Influenza Immunisation Campaign