This week, we join the global community in celebrating World Immunization Week, an important period to emphasize how collective action can help protect people from vaccine-preventable diseases, such as the flu.
While annual influenza vaccination is the most effective way to prevent influenza, more needs to be done to reach the World Health Organization (WHO)’s recommendation that 75% of adults over the age of 65 should get vaccinated against the flu. This is particularly concerning, as the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) estimates that influenza is responsible for causing 4-50 million symptomatic infections in the EU/EEA region alone annually, leading to 15,000-70,000 deaths associated with influenza. Among the total deaths, 88% occurred in individuals aged 65 years and older, and the mortality rates were approximately 35 times higher in this age group compared to those who were under 65 years old². In fact, the flu vaccine coverage rate for the elderly is below 50% in more than half of the EU/EEA countries. In the US, during the 2022-23 flu season, it is estimated that 53% of individuals aged 65 and over were vaccinated. This represents a shortfall from the WHO target.
#TogetherAgainstFlu is a campaign aimed at improving flu vaccination coverage. In recent months, we’ve sought input from experts and healthcare professionals on how healthcare professionals play a critical role in fighting the flu through collective action. Here are three ways in which they can contribute:
Talking about flu vaccination: According to Prof Sir Jonathan Van-Tam from the University of Nottingham, healthcare professionals play a crucial role in promoting flu vaccination, especially those who are at higher risk of complications from the flu, such as the elderly, young children, pregnant women, and individuals with chronic health conditions. He says that “studies consistently show that when a doctor or another health professional recommends flu vaccination, patients are more likely to listen and follow that advice”. They can provide information on the benefits of flu vaccination, address any concerns or misconceptions, and emphasize the importance of getting vaccinated every year. [Listen to Prof Sir Jonathan Van-Tam].
Time and time again, the studies tell us that when a doctor or another health professional recommends flu vaccination, patients listen and they take that advice.Prof Sir Jonathan Van-Tam, University of Nottingham
Actively listening: According to Dr. William Schaffner, National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID), it is important to take time to listen and actively address questions that patients might have regarding how vaccines work and how they protect against disease. For him, facilitating an open conversation can open the door for a better understanding about vaccination. He encourages healthcare professionals to ask: “What is it about the flu vaccine that concerns you? I’m interested in hearing about that.”, or to be open about any questions about vaccines because that’s how trust can be built. “Every question that a patient asks is an important and reasonable question and must be responded to in a comforting and reassuring fashion,” he believes. [Listen to Dr. William Schaffner].
When it comes to vaccines, if patients are reluctant or have a question, the important thing is for the healthcare provider to say to themselves, “Stop. I must now listen to the patient,” and then acknowledge that the patient’s question is a valid one.
And then you say, “What is it about the flu vaccine that concerns you? I’m interested in hearing about that.” So you open the door to a conversation. And then you can provide information. So you try to normalize it. You make it the standard. And then reassure the patient any question that you have about the influenza vaccine, any concern, please bring them to me. We’re happy to discuss them. And that’s the way you can build trust.
Every question that a patient asks is an important and reasonable question and must be responded to in a comforting and reassuring fashion.Dr. William Schaffner, National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID)
Leading by example: Healthcare professionals can set an example by getting vaccinated themselves and sharing their experience with their patients. This can help build trust and confidence in the flu vaccine among patients and encourage them to follow suit. According to Josefine Declaye, ICU Nurse and Policy Officer, European Specialist Nurses Organization (ESNO), “as a nurse, you need to advocate for the empowerment of the patient and empowerment of your own health.” [Listen to Josefine Declaye].
As a nurse, you need to advocate for empowerment of the patient, and empowerment of your own health.Josefine Declaye, ICU Nurse and Policy Officer, European Specialist Nurses Organisation (ESNO)
Collective action among healthcare professionals can make a significant impact in preventing and controlling the spread of the flu, by talking about flu vaccines, actively listening, and leading by example. It is never too late or too early to speak to patients about the benefits of influenza vaccine and immunization.
 Seasonal Influenza vaccines. ECDC. Available at: https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/seasonal-influenza/prevention-and-control/seasonal-influenza-vaccines [Accessed on 17 April 2023]
 Estimates of mortality associated with seasonal influenza for the European Union from the GLaMOR project. NIH. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35094868/ [Access on 17 April 2023]
 Vaccination against influenza of population aged 65 and over. Eurostat. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/databrowser/view/hlth_ps_immu/default/table?lang=en [Accessed on 17 April 2023]
 Weekly Flu Vaccination Dashboard. CDC. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/fluvaxview/dashboard/vaccination-dashboard.html# [Accessed on 17 April 2023]