The HSE has urged children, pregnant women and the elderly to get the flu vaccine, as the first cases of influenza emerge this winter.
In contrast to the panic last year when demand for the flu jab outstripped supply, Dr Aparna Keegan, clinical flu lead with the HSE, said three different types of flu vaccine are available this year in plentiful supplies.
Last winter’s strict lockdown meant there was no influenza circulating in the community, but this year, six confirmed cases have already been reported, with one death.
Dr Keegan, a specialist in public health medicine, said the flu can be more serious for children than people imagine.
She said a 10-year study carried out in Ireland found almost 5,000 children were admitted to hospitals with the flu between 2008 and 2019.
The same review, by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC), found just under 200 children were admitted to intensive care units in the same time period.
“Also 40 children, unfortunately, died over that 10-year period,” Dr Keegan said.
The children’s vaccine is free to under-17s and is a nasal spray, so no injections are required.
“Some of the common symptoms are really high temperature, extreme fatigue, muscle aches, and joint pains,” she said.
“Some people have really severe complications with flu as well, they might have bronchitis, they might have pneumonia or encephalitis, which is inflammation of the brain, or meningitis.
“Although these are rare, they are still possible with flu.”
Dr Keegan also advised pregnant women to consider the vaccine, saying some might even need to take it twice if their pregnancy spans two winters.
“You need to get the flu vaccine every season because it changes, it is adapted to best match the flu strains that are circulating each flu season.
"It is particularly important for pregnant women because they are at high risk of hospitalisation from the flu,” she said.
She quoted studies showing the flu during pregnancy is associated with a low birth-weight, premature birth, or still-births in some tragic cases.
Pregnant women could opt to get this vaccine along with as their Covid-19 shots, or the whooping cough jab.
Over-65s receive an ‘adjuvanted’ vaccine meaning it is stronger to protect people with weakened immune systems, this is given as an injection.
The vaccine is free for over-65s and people in vulnerable groups like children or pregnant women or available at a cost of €25 for healthy people aged 18 to 64, through a GP or pharmacy.
Last year, the HPSC found 70.5% of over-65s took the flu vaccine, the highest percentage in almost a decade of records.
The uptake among HSE hospital healthcare workers was also up at 71.4%.