JUST a quarter of young people who are eligible for the free flu jab have taken up the offer – and North East health chiefs are worried lives could be at risk.
Figures show that just 26 percent of the 25,000 people aged six months to 16 years who qualify for the jab in the region have had it.
Last winter, December and January saw critical care units across the North East put under severe pressure as they cared for patients who required ventilation due to serious complications of flu. Most were young or middle aged adults with long-term conditions such as diabetes and asthma.
Now health bosses are urging those in at risk groups to come forward for the vaccine as soon as possible to avoid a repeat of the problem.
NHS North East Deputy Medical Director Dr Tricia Cresswell said: “Traditionally, the elderly have been more seriously affected by winter flu, but the picture is beginning to change as we are seeing a higher proportion of young and middle aged people taken seriously ill.
“Flu can cause serious illness in people with long-term conditions, including younger people, and in the most severe cases can put the lives of people with these conditions in unnecessary danger.
“We don’t want anyone to get ill from something which can be avoided and that’s why we’re appealing to the parents of young people who are in the flu risk groups to book a vaccination appointment as a matter of priority before flu starts circulating more widely in the community.”
Morpeth GP Dr Alistair Blair was one of the first people to have their annual flu vaccine this year and he is calling on eligible patients to follow his lead before it is too late.
“I’m urging those people at risk of getting the flu to follow in my footsteps and get the free flu jab now,” he said.
“Whilst most people who are normally fit and healthy recover from flu by taking plenty of rest, fluids and over the counter flu remedies, for those in at risk groups it can cause serious illness and in the most tragic of cases, death.
“Last winter many people were so ill with flu they ended up in intensive care in hospitals across the North East.
“Most of these patients were under 65 and were in at risk groups, but had not taken up their free offer of the vaccine — sadly some died.
“All of this can be prevented with the free and safe annual flu jab which is available now and includes protection against the H1N1 strain which caused the swine flu pandemic in 2009 and continues to attack younger people.
“For this reason it is really important that all pregnant women are protected no matter what stage of pregnancy.”
Dr Blair is Chairman of the Northumberland Clinical Commissioning Group, which will be responsible from April 2013 for making sure local people receive healthcare services to meet their needs.
The free flu vaccine is available now from GP surgeries for those who are most at risk, including pregnant women and their unborn babies, children and adults with long-term health problems, anyone over 65, carers of those in at risk groups and all frontline health and social care workers.
People can check if they qualify on the NHS choices website at www.nhs.uk
To find the nearest participating pharmacy visit www.northoftyne.nhs.uk or contact the Patient Advice and Liaison Service on 0800 0320202, text 01670 51109.
When going to a pharmacy, patients will need to take their GP letter and photo identification with them to prove they are eligible for the vaccination.