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Time to get vaccinated against influenza

Henkilö sängyssä

Influenza is a much more severe disease than the common cold, and its complications may even prove fatal at worst. It is the only traditional respiratory infection with a vaccine. 

Vaccination rates used to fall short 

According to the Finnish National Vaccination Register, there was a significant increase in influenza vaccination rates among persons aged 65 and older during the season of 2021–2022. In previous years, only about half of this age group have been vaccinated against influenza, which Paediatrics Professor Terho Heikkinen accredits to two reasons. 

– Influenza is not regarded as dangerous, and people may have forgotten what a bad disease it actually is. And, since the efficacy of the vaccine varies every year, it has gathered a reputation of not being effective enough. 

The yearly variation in vaccine efficacy is due to the ability of the influenza virus to transform rapidly. Since the manufacturing of vaccines has to begin about a year before the epidemic of next winter, the virus may have transformed too much by the start of the epidemic for the vaccine to have optimal efficacy against the strain circulating at that time.  

– But even if the efficacy is only 40 per cent, it is still much better than zero, emphasises Heikkinen. 

Possible improvement in vaccination rates  

– This year, even more people may choose to get vaccinated against influenza because the COVID pandemic has increased people’s awareness about the importance of vaccinations, says Heikkinen.  

The COVID pandemic is not over yet, and it is dangerous to have both influenza and COVID at the same time. Influenza spreads via human contact as well, and the higher the population density, the greater the risk of infection.  

There are regional differences in influenza vaccination rates. Ostrobothnia usually has the lowest vaccination rates of all vaccines. According to Heikkinen, this may be due to factors such as differing views on fundamental principles, false beliefs, and strong local influence of opinion multipliers spreading their views around the area.  

Complications of influenza 

The clinical presentation of the respiratory infection caused by the influenza virus ranges from asymptomatic infection to lethal disease.  

– Most people with influenza will get high fever, severe cough, headache and muscle pains. Some get additional symptoms, which usually include pneumonia for adults and ear infection for children. Some may get an even worse sequela: multiorgan failure, which is often fatal. Elderly people who die of influenza often experience pneumonia as the last stage, narrates Heikkinen. 

Unlike COVID, small children have the highest incidence of influenza and spread the disease to the highest degree.  

Children's vaccinations reduce the cost of health care 

– We do not run enough influenza diagnostics on elderly people in Finland. We do, however, run diagnostics on children and know exactly what is the cost of children’s influenza, says Heikkinen. 

In Finland, children over six months and under seven years of age are annually vaccinated against seasonal influenza as part of the national vaccination programme. University of Turku and the National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) have completed a joint study comparing the cost of the vaccination programme to the savings achieved due to decreased influenza morbidity.  

– Our study showed that the influenza vaccination gave a financial benefit of about EUR 12 per every child under three years of age. This amounts to millions in total calculated savings in health care. Children’s vaccinations also benefit their parents in the form of reduced absence from work. 
Text: Leena Koskenlaakso