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Myths Still Affect Influenza Vaccine Uptake

Myths Still Affect Influenza Vaccine Uptake

Research by the Christchurch School of Medicine and Health Sciences reveals there is still some way to go to before most people aged 65 and over across the country take advantage of free flu vaccination, despite its efficacy in preventing influenza in this age group. The research from the Department of Public Health and General Practice, shows there are significant variations in uptake of the vaccine across the country, while myths still persist about influenza and the vaccination.

Influenza is a serious disease in older people. Between 1990 and 1999, 278 people were admitted to hospital each year with influenza and 34 died. Influenza vaccination reduces the risk of serious illness and death from influenza.

The research investigated knowledge and attitudes about influenza vaccination amongst GPs, practice nurses and people 65 and over, and will be published in the NZ Medical Journal on May 6.

“We know the uptake of the influenza vaccine varies significantly across the country. In Canterbury the coverage for people 65 and over is on target at 75%. But in Northland and Auckland it is only 46% and 49% respectively, which is sub-optimal,” says Dr Cheryl Brunton, a member of the study team. Our study looked at some of the reasons for this, she says.

Researchers found that although those people 65 and over who responded to the survey were well-informed about influenza, and the vaccine and possible complications from getting the ‘flu’, many myths about the vaccine are still common currency. These myths dissuade at least some older people from being vaccinated.

They include a belief that older people don’t need the vaccine if they are healthy, or that they can get the flu through having the vaccination. Neither of these is true, she says, but they persist. Concern about side effects was also a reason some older people didn’t get vaccinated, but serious reactions to the vaccination are very rare, says Dr Brunton.

Older people who have received a recommendation from their GP or practice nurse are significantly more likely to be vaccinated. “This really shows how important it is that GPs and practice nurses promote vaccination to their patients”, says Dr Brunton. The study found that 99% of GPs and practice nurses agree that influenza can be serious in older people and that even healthy older people can get influenza. Most providers already recognise the importance of influenza vaccination.

Dr Brunton believes the University of Otago research findings emphasise the importance of good public communication by DHBs and PHOs, as well as GPs and practice nurses in getting across the flu vaccine message to older people, and those with chronic conditions. She says Canterbury has made a special effort in this regard over a number of years resulting in high coverage in people 65 and over.

However, 50% of GPs say that increasing the subsidy for the vaccine will help improve coverage of the flu vaccine, and also improving patient recall systems, while practice nurses place highest priority on public education. The latter strategies are part of the current campaign.

While more than two thirds of GPs and practice nurses are vaccinated against influenza, many of those who aren’t, say they didn’t get around to it. “Primary care doctors and nurses have far higher rates of uptake of influenza vaccination than have been reported in hospital staff, but their levels of protection can still be improved”, says Dr Brunton . Even though the vaccination campaign has been delayed this year, GPs and practice nurses need to take time to protect themselves as well as their patients.

The researchers suggest that to make further increases in vaccine coverage, the National Influenza Strategy Group (NISG) should continue to target both GPs and practice nurses, and people 65 and over, and those with chronic diseases who are eligible for free vaccination.

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