Solidarity with people at risk is the focus of the latest flu jab campaign, which has been launched by family doctors and the Federal Health Office.
The consumer protection watchdog said it supported the health office but wanted to see figures on the efficacy of vaccinations.
In August the government declared the 2009 flu pandemic, a global outbreak of a new strain of H1N1 influenza virus, officially over. The media reaction and logistical problems had been large; the spread of the virus and the effectiveness of the vaccination campaign relatively small.
In addition, millions of doses went unused and ended up having to be given away or destroyed.
According to the World Health Organization, the H1N1 virus killed more than 18,000 people since its appearance in April 2009, roughly four per cent of the 250,000-500,000 annual influenza deaths. Eighteen people died from symptoms or complications related to the virus in Switzerland.
This year’s campaign, called “Together against flu”, breaks new ground not only in its appeal for solidarity, but also because it contains seasonal as well as pandemic viruses.
So this year whoever gets jabbed against seasonal flu will also be covered against the so-called swine flu. Last winter two separate jabs were needed.
National Vaccination Day
“Pandemic viruses have been included in the vaccination because swine flu is still circulating in countries such as Australia, New Zealand or Chile,” said Daniel Koch, head of the division of communicable diseases at the Federal Health Office.
He said it was assumed the virus could still appear in the northern hemisphere.
Family doctors play an important role in the vaccination campaign. Eighty per cent of them are taking part, according to Marc Müller, president of the Swiss family doctors association.
In the centre of the one-month campaign, whose main messages will be pushed until the middle of November, is National Vaccination Day on November 5. On that day people can go to their family doctors and get the jab – without making an appointment – for a flat rate of SFr25 ($25.80).
“First and foremost people with a weak immune system should get the vaccination,” Müller said.
These, he said, included in particular people aged over 65 but also children and pregnant women (from the 13th week).
People who come into contact with the above-mentioned groups should also get vaccinated, he advised.
Müller also drew attention to those healthy 65- to 75-year-olds who might be healthy and active, but because they rarely need to visit the doctor could easily fall under the family doctor’s radar.
“With this campaign we want to make ‘young old people’ aware that they have a responsibility towards their grandchildren or their own – very old – parents, who are perhaps frail,” he said.
Sara Stalder, head of the foundation for consumer protection, is not in principle against the flu vaccination, believing everyone should talk to their doctor and decide for themselves.
She does however have a problem with the positioning of solidarity as a central argument for getting vaccinated.
“The Federal Health Office is on shaky ground as it still hasn’t released any data on the effectiveness of flu jabs,” she said.
Stalder has demanded detailed figures on the effectiveness of vaccinations from the authorities for years, but she says no one even knows how many people have been vaccinated, adding that vaccination campaigns are after all a question of economics.
“A register would be a relatively easy way of collecting and assessing data for hit rates, vaccination failure and health problems following vaccination,” she said.
According to Marc Müller, the hit rate – the number of cases where the vaccinated person stays flu-free – is around 80 per cent.
But he adds that this counts only if the seasonal flu virus is one of the three viruses in the vaccination.
For her part, Stalder says the chances are 50-50 that the vaccination contains the “right” virus.
Müller bases his estimation on the five to seven-year cycle. During this period the vaccination in question works very well, he says, because the virus doesn’t change much from the moment of definition until the arrival of the flu epidemic.
“But every seven or eight years there’s a mutation – the virus strain fundamentally alters and then the vaccination is useless,” he said.
Müller dismisses critics who accuse the Health Office and family doctors of being in the pocket of the pharmaceutical industry.
Every year manufacturers have to produce a new vaccine because it’s not possible to say what the vaccine must look like until spring, he explained. Surplus vaccine must then be disposed of.
Müller said that in addition to the annual deaths from seasonal flu, from an epidemiological point of view the disease is a real burden for the economy.
“Since most victims come from the risk groups, it is an act of solidarity that we protect them and ourselves,” he said.
Flu in Switzerland
It can last up to 10 days.
The flu virus is easily transmitted by coughs and sneezes, particularly in closed spaces, and by hand contact.
Even people who do not have any typical flu symptoms can pass on the virus. There is a particularly high risk of transmission in hospitals and care homes.
Flu can lead to complications in older people, new born babies, people with certain chronic illnesses, pregnant women and mothers who have recently given birth.
Every year between 100,000 and 300,000 people go to their family doctor with flu-like symptoms.
Between about 1,000 and 5,000 need to be hospitalised each year because of complications - such things as pneumonia or other bacterial infections, or breathing difficulties.
Between 400 and 1,000 people die every year as a consequence of flu.
(Source: Health Office)
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