The number of patients aged over 65 receiving the influenza vaccine has dropped significantly this flu season compared with last year, amidst falling rates of uptake among all at-risk groups, official figures reveal.
Data published by Public Health England, covering the period from 1-21 October, shows over-65s are the worst hit, with uptake 20% lower than the same point last year.
The BMA said the drop is ‘no surprise’ due to problems with this year’s vaccine deliveries that have meant practices have so far only received 60% of the vaccine stock for patients aged over 65.
There have been ongoing issues with flu vaccine orders and deliveries in recent weeks, which last month led to NHS England asking practices and pharmacies to swap stock to ensure patients get vaccinated.
PHE said it was ‘monitoring the situation carefully’ and that it expected vaccination rates to recover over the next few weeks as more stock is delivered.
PHE’s weekly national influenza report, published last Thursday, found uptake across under-65s who are at risk, over-65s, and pregnant women has dropped since last year – alongside a small fall in coverage among children aged two and three.
The figures show that just 33.8% of over-65s have so far been vaccinated across reporting practices, compared with 53.7% in the same period in 2017/18.
Meanwhile, uptake in the under-65s group is 7% lower than last year – falling from 29.1% in 2017/18, to 22.2% this year.
There has been a 6% drop among pregnant women – from 30.5% last year, to 24.8% in the current period. Vaccination rates among young children have decreased slightly, from 13.3% to 10.1% among two-year-olds, and from 13.7% to 10.7% in three-year-olds.
Ahead of this flu season, which officially started on 1 September, practices were advised to administer the quadrivalent vaccine (QIV) to patients aged 18-65 and the adjuvanted trivalent flu vaccine (aTIV) to patients aged over 65.
But both of these vaccines have been subject to delays or delivery issues.
The over-65s vaccine, aTIV, is being delivered in a phased process, with 40% delivered in September, 20% in October and 40% in November, raising concerns among GPs that they would run out between deliveries and lose patients to competing pharmacies.
The UK’s main supplier of QIV, Sanofi Pasteur, was also hit by manufacturing issues, including problems with packaging, which delayed deliveries to around 1,000 GP practices by two weeks.
BMA GP Committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: ‘It’s no surprise there is a big drop in uptake so far, as this year the phased delivery of vaccine will mean it’s only in November that we can ensure that all eligible patients have been given an opportunity to be vaccinated.
‘It’s important for patients to be protected for the winter ahead and they should make an appointment with their practice once the final stocks have been delivered.’
PHE head of immunisation Mary Ramsay said: ‘We are monitoring the situation carefully, but expect the coverage to catch up over the next few weeks, as more stock is delivered.
‘Practices and pharmacies without stock should make sure patients are aware that vaccine will be coming available over the next few weeks and book them in for a future clinic.
‘It is important that those eligible are protected before flu starts to circulate, usually in late December.’
The BMA last week called this year’s flu vaccine situation a ‘nightmare for GPs’, and asked NHS England to ensure the issues do not reoccur during the next flu season.
An NHS England spokesperson said: ‘This year people over 65 will be offered the best vaccine available anywhere in the world.
‘As was announced some months ago – so this should surprise no-one – delivery of the jab is being phased and everyone who needs the vaccine will get protected before December, when the flu season usually hits. Seqirus has confirmed all orders for the over 65 population will be delivered by mid-November.’
Both supplier Seqiris and NHS England previously said that there had been a large increase in demand from practices and pharmacies for the vaccines compared with previous years and that it was ‘working as quickly as possible to respond’.