GPs have called for a national publicity campaign to boost flu vaccination rates as the official figures showed that just 100 or so practices reached the 75% coverage target for all risk groups last flu season.
Overall, just half of at-risk people aged six months to 65 years in clinical at-risk groups were vaccinated against flu, with coverage remaining below 25% in the youngest group aged between six months and two years.
The figures raise doubts over the ability of GPs to reach the goal of 75% coverage in at-risk groups for the coming flu season, when they will also be expected to start vaccinating all two- and three-year-olds against flu.
According to official figures for the 2012/2013 flu season nationally over 100 practices managed to score 75% or higher.
The 2012/2013 influenza vaccination uptake report, from Public Health England, says the planned uptake of vaccine next season in clinical risk groups among people aged six months to 65 years is 75%, in accordance with European Union recommendations.
However, it says: ‘By the end of the 2012/13 winter season just over 50% of people aged six months to under 65 years in a clinical risk group, had been vaccinated against flu.
‘Despite continued efforts to improve uptake and a sustained drive over the past couple of years to encourage uptake of 70% or more, the remaining half of the clinical risk group population eligible to receive the vaccine, are still not getting immunised.’
By contrast, uptake in elderly people aged 65 and over remained relatively high and close to the 75% recommended coverage, at 73.4%, although this was very slightly down from the previous year, when coverage was at 74.0%.
And uptake rose considerably among pregnant women last season to a ‘record high’ of 40.3%, compared with 27.4% the year before and 38.0% in 2010/2011, which PHE puts down to flu vaccination being offered at the same time as the pertussis vaccination introduced in October last year. For those pregnant women falling in a clinical risk group, uptake last season was 59.0%, up from 50.8% in 2011/2012 and 56.6% in 2010/2011.
But for at-risk groups (excluding pregnant women) between six months and 65 years of age, mean uptake was 51.3% in 2012/2013, a slight decrease from 51.6% the previous season.
And, although uptake went up slightly in the youngest of these patients, aged six months to two years, it was still only a mean of 24.3%, compared with 22.5% achieved in the same age group in 2011/2012.
PHE singles out midwifery services as ‘the best route’ to continuing to boost uptake among pregnant women, noting that health professionals working in maternity services are ‘encouraged to provide flu vaccine as part of routine care for all pregnant women’.
But it remains unclear how practices will achieve the 50% increase on current uptake levels needed in other groups next season, even though the report points out that a small number of practices are already achieving this.
‘Individually, over 100 GP practices managed to obtain coverage levels of 75% or more with some getting as high as 100% uptake, based on last year’s performance,’ it notes.
Dr George Kassianos, RCGP immunisation lead and a GP in Wokingham, Surrey, said: ‘The uptake in the at risk groups is about 51% and this season we shall need to achieve 75%.
‘This is not easy as it is a huge increase in the rate, more vaccines will need to be ordered but above all a greater awareness about the need for influenza immunisation among these groups of patients is necessary, if we are to hit such a high rate.
‘Without the direct help from the Department of Health in the form of a national campaign this rate may not be achieved.’
Dr Kassianos said the low uptake among at-risk children aged between six months and two years was particularly concerning.
He said: ‘These six-month- to two-year-olds are very vulnerable children and should not be left out.’