Cork GP: 'Covid in the spotlight but we must also tackle flu threat'

Cork GP: 'Covid in the spotlight but we must also tackle flu threat'
Dr. Mike Thompson at the Imokilly Medical Centre, Midleton, Co. Cork. Picture Denis Minihane.

Covid-19 may be in the spotlight but the flu remains a lasting threat, a Cork GP has warned.

Dr Mike Thompson said that flu vaccine uptake will be as important as ever this winter, even as Ireland tries to come to grips with the deadly coronavirus.

Speaking to The Echo, Dr Thompson highlighted the new challenges GPs will face in administering the vaccine as a result of Covid-19, and the importance of overcoming them.

The Cork GP also set the record straight on some common myths associated with the flu vaccine.

“This time of year, medical minds turn to the coming winter and the challenges it will pose,” he said.

“An extra predicament this season will be how we will vaccinate a large cohort of our population against influenza in the current uncertain environment.

“Coronavirus may have taken the spotlight, but influenza remains a perennial threat,” he warned.

“It causes 200-500 deaths per year in Ireland, often in our most vulnerable.

“It brings misery and morbidity, thousands of hospital admissions, loss in productivity, absenteeism, innumerate GP visits - all with consequential economic impact.” Dr Thompson explained that those who are most at risk from the flu are also among the most vulnerable when it comes to Covid-19.

He added that the people of Ireland have learned valuable lessons from the coronavirus pandemic, including habits that, if carried on, can mitigate the spread of other illnesses such as the common flu.

“We have protection against the virus,” said Dr Thompson.

“We are all now well versed in cough hygiene, social distancing, hand washing etcetera.

“The most effective protection - as it has been for years – remains vaccination,” he added, emphasising the effectiveness of the vaccine in terms of flu vaccination.

While he encouraged everyone to get vaccinated, Dr Thompson said the expansion of the vaccination program to include children up to and including the age of 12 will pose significant challenges for family doctors across Cork and Ireland.

“News that the vaccination programme is being extended to include all children from two to 12 years of age adds to the formidable task at hand,” he said.

“These are in addition to pregnant women, all people over 65, all healthcare workers, those aged six months to 65 years with significant medical conditions, those immunocompromised, long-term care residents, those in contact with poultry or pigs and those in contact with at-risk groups.

“Importantly, the HSE have decreed that these are free at the point of care for all these groups,” he added.

Dr Thompson also said that “well and healthy” people should also get the flu vaccine.

“This is a massive cohort to reach,” he added.

“General Practice – as it always does – will lead the campaign.

“Your doctors and nurses are familiar with your medical history and will be able to answer your questions and immunise you and your family in an appropriate and professional setting,” he said.

Dr Thompson claimed that the number of people presenting for flu vaccinations is likely to be higher this year in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

He explained that with concerns over a possible second coronavirus wave, GPs across Ireland are discussing how to administer a mass vaccination program in these unprecedented conditions.

“Presentations for vaccination are anticipated to be significantly up in light of the corona pandemic.

“We expect the two to 12-year-old age group to receive a nasal spray vaccine, which will be available from October,” he added.

“All other groups will receive injection from early September and for the vast majority, only one dose is needed.

“This, along with social distancing, the need for reduced footfall in clinics, the possibility of a second wave, reduced capacity due to Covid illnesses and potential staff illnesses will mean that general practice will have to offer novel, safe and efficient mass vaccination,” said Dr Thompson.

“GP forums are buzzing with discussions about drive-thru clinics, facilitating large community clinics in sports halls, dedicated out of hours clinics, employing extra staff, as well as education and training programmes to ensure an exigent response.

“Some GPs have concerns,” he admitted.

“The scope of the task at hand is enormous.” Dr Thompson claimed that the HSE will have to ensure adequate stock of vaccines, and that preparation on the GP side of things is already under way.

He also highlighted the importance of a national publicity drive which is reportedly set to get underway in early September.

He added that support from the government is welcomed, as is understanding and cooperation from those attending GPs in these new normal circumstances.

“The Irish College of General Practitioners and our representative body the Irish Medical Organisation have already started training, education and negotiations with the HSE,” revealed Dr Thompson.

“The general practice community - as it did with Covid – will remain open.

“We will continue to protect patients by observing safe spacing and wearing personal protective equipment (PPE),” he added.

Dr Thompson called on the people of Cork and Ireland to protect their family, friends, healthcare workers and country by ensuring they get the vaccine.

He also set about busting some myths that are commonly associated with the flu and vaccine.

“The claim that you can get the flu from the vaccine is false,” he said.

“The virus is inactive and cannot give you influenza.

“The claim that healthy people should not get the vaccine is also incorrect,” he added.

“Healthy people can get influenza and many ‘healthy’ people are also carers, parents and essential workers.” Dr Thompson dismissed as false the claims that the flu vaccine protects against the common cold and Covid-19.

He also said that people with egg allergies can get the flu shot, but that those with anaphylaxis to eggs or with concerns should consult their GP.

He added that the vaccine is permissible for the Muslim community, as stated by the chair of Irish Council of Imams, and that the Vegeterian Society also recommended vaccine uptake for those at risk, amid claims the vaccine contains traces of egg and pork gelatin.

Addressing claims that the flu vaccine is 100% effective, Dr Thompson said: “Sadly, this is not true.

“It takes days to trigger an immune response and depends on circulating viruses.” However, Dr Thompson said that the flu vaccine is effective for the upcoming season, even though the effectiveness will wear off with time.

“The flu vaccine is effective only for the current season – the vaccine does ‘wear off’ with time and the circulating strains change from year to year.

“This is why, for now, annual vaccination is needed,” he concluded, encouraging everyone, particularly those in at-risk groups, to get the flu vaccine when it becomes available in the coming months.

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