Flu vaccination: The main things to know about the 2019 programme

Please note we cannot answer any questions that relate to individual health concerns. You should consult your GP or specialist consultant.

What is flu?

Flu is an acute viral infection of the respiratory tract, usually characterised by a fever, chills, headache, aching muscles, joint pain and fatigue. It is a highly infectious virus different to the common cold, and spreads rapidly in closed communities and even people with mild or no symptoms can infect others.

Flu kills an average of 8,000 people every year, and it can be particularly serious in older adults, very young children, and people with underlying health conditions.

Why get the vaccine and who is eligible?

The flu vaccine remains the best defence we have against flu and protects those people who are most vulnerable.

Certain groups of people are at higher risk from flu, including adults aged 65 and over, those with underlying health conditions, pregnant women, and frontline health and social care workers.

In 2019/20, the flu vaccination will be offered to:

  • those aged 65 years and over
  • those aged 6 months to under 65 years in clinical risk groups
  • pregnant women
  • those living in a residential or nursing home
  • the main carer of an older or disabled person
  • children aged 2-3 (on 31 August 2019) and all primary school aged children

Employers of frontline health and social care workers also have a responsibility to ensure their staff can get the free vaccine.

What’s new for 2019?

More people than ever are now eligible for the flu vaccine and 25 million people in England will be offered it for free by the NHS. For the first time, the nasal spray vaccine will be offered to all primary school aged children, which means an extra 600,000 children will be protected.

A brand new flu vaccination marketing campaign for health and social care workers has also launched, delivered by PHE, NHS England and NHS Improvement. “Time to get your flu jab” takes a new approach, emphasising the protective benefit of the flu vaccination of themselves, their family, and their patients.

A wider range of flu vaccines are now available which should offer better protection. This includes the ‘adjuvanted’ vaccine which was offered to those aged 65 years and over for the first-time last year and provided a higher level of protection compared to the standard non-adjuvanted vaccines in this age group.

In addition, a new cell-based vaccine which protects against four strains of flu (quadrivalent) will also be available for those aged 65 and over, and those under 65 with underlying medical conditions. As the vaccine virus is grown in cells, rather than eggs, this avoids the changes that can occur when using eggs in the manufacturing process. There is increasing evidence in recent seasons that egg adaptation may mean that vaccines do not work as well, particularly against the A(H3N2) virus strain.

This vaccine should offer better protection for older people against flu than standard-dose, non-adjuvanted vaccines that are grown in eggs. The cell-based vaccine is therefore considered equally suitable for older adults as the ‘adjuvated’ vaccine.  For under 65s with underlying health conditions and pregnant women , both the quadrivalent egg-based vaccine and quadrivalent cell-based vaccine are equally suitable We advise that you can accept any of the vaccines recommended for your age.

How do we know which strains should go into the flu vaccine?

The World Health Organization (WHO) reviews the global situation (once for the Northern Hemisphere vaccine and once for the Southern Hemisphere) each year and recommends which flu strains should go in the vaccine to be manufactured for the following season. This recommendation is based on the viruses circulating each season and epidemiological data from around the world.

The WHO has to make a decision on which strains of flu to protect against, before flu starts circulating several months later the following season. This year, the following strains have been used in vaccines:

  • an A/Brisbane/02/2018 (H1N1)pdm09-like virus;
  • an A/Kansas/14/2017 (H3N2)-like virus;
  • a B/Colorado/06/2017-like virus (B/Victoria/2/87 lineage); and
  • a B/Phuket/3073/2013-like virus (B/Yamagata/16/88 lineage).

What happened last year?

Last winter, 5,505 people were reported hospitalised because of confirmed flu in a network of 24 trusts in England. 3,157 people were admitted to an Intensive Care Unit or High Dependency Unit as a result of confirmed flu across all of the UK during the 2018/19 flu season, of whom 312 died.

In 2018/19, there were an estimated 1,692 deaths associated with flu.

The flu vaccine uptake rates in key eligible groups last season were:

  • adults aged 65 or older: 72.0%
  • adults in at-risk groups: 48.0%
  • pregnant women: 45.2%
  • children aged 2: 43.8%
  • children aged 3: 45.9%

There is clearly still room for improvement within the vaccination programme and we urge everyone who is eligible or responsible for an eligible person to think about protecting their health with the vaccine this winter.

How can I protect myself, my family and those around me from the flu?

Flu is very infectious and the virus can live on hands and hard surfaces for up to 24 hours. This is why it is important to “Catch it, Bin it, Kill it” – “Catch” any sneezes in a tissue, “Bin” any tissues immediately and “Kill” the virus by washing your hands with soap and warm water. Avoid contact with sick people and wash your hands often with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand rub. If you are unwell, look after yourself, drink plenty of fluids and stay at home so you don’t spread flu to others.

The vaccine remains the best defence we have to protect against the spread of flu and we encourage everyone eligible to get it each year.

Should Aussie flu be a concern this season?

What happens in Australia is not a clear predictor of the UK’s flu season. Australia had an early start to the flu season than in recent years. It follows the previous season (2018) of very low activity, but overall numbers are likely to be lower than those seen in 2017.

Will EU Exit impact on the delivery of flu vaccines into the country?

Flu vaccines are generally delivered from September to November. This year the majority of flu vaccines are expected to be in the UK by the end of October.

Public Health England manages significant stockpiles of vaccine; including the supply and distribution of children’s flu vaccines.

We do not anticipate any delays to the vaccine for the children’s flu programme as a result of EU Exit. Phased deliveries throughout the season are usual and necessary as the vaccine has a very short shelf life.

Additional planning—working closely with vaccine suppliers—has and continues to take place to minimise the risk of supply disruption for all centrally supplied vaccines following EU Exit.

Get more information about flu by visiting the NHS website.


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Contributor: Yvonne Doyle