(L-R) Pharmacist at Balmoral Pharmacy Gerry Watters, Professor Sir Michael McBride, Mrs Cathy Harrison and Gerard Greene. Photo: @healthdpt

Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer Professor Sir Michael McBride and chief pharmaceutical officer Cathy Harrison officially launched this year’s flu vaccination programme and received their flu jab in Belfast.

The rollout of the seasonal influenza programme, which officially began on 1 October 2021, is being supported by community pharmacies across the province.

This year the programme is being expanded to help protect the most vulnerable people and to relieve the winter pressures faced by the health service during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

Speaking at Balmoral Pharmacy in Belfast, Professor McBride, said: “The Covid-19 pandemic continues to place significant demands and pressures on our health service and we expect that there will be circulation of both flu and Covid-19 this winter, which will inevitably add further pressures on our already fragile health care system.

“As a result of the low flu activity last winter we expect reduced levels of population immunity against the virus this winter. In the situation where social mixing and social contact return towards pre-pandemic norms, it is expected that this winter will be the first winter in the UK when seasonal flu and other respiratory viruses such as RSV in children will circulate alongside Covid-19.

“Modelling indicates the 2021/22 flu season in the UK could be up to 50 per cent larger than typically seen and it is also possible that the 2021 to 2022 influenza season will begin earlier than usual.

“Influenza vaccination is therefore an important priority this coming autumn to reduce morbidity and mortality associated with influenza, and to reduce hospitalisations during a time when the health service may also be managing significant winter outbreaks of Covid-19.”

The extension of the community pharmacy role in the 2021/22 flu vaccination programme will offer an additional route to vaccination for all frontline healthcare workers and for all those aged 50 and over, complimenting existing Occupational Health services and GP services, in order to maximise uptake of the flu vaccine.

Harrison said: “Community pharmacists are highly trained healthcare professionals and have continued to play a pivotal role delivering health services to communities in Northern Ireland during the pandemic.

“I am delighted to welcome this expanded role for community pharmacy teams, which builds on the success of last year’s community pharmacy flu vaccination service and the Covid-19 vaccination programme, which has seen over 143,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccine administered in community pharmacies all across Northern Ireland.”

Chief executive of Community Pharmacy NI, Gerard Greene, said: “Community pharmacies across Northern Ireland welcome the expansion of the Community Pharmacy flu vaccination service, it gives the public the option of getting their flu vaccine at a convenient, accessible location with a local pharmacist they know and trust.

“The threat of Covid-19 has made the need for vaccines even more crucial, and we strongly advise all those eligible to contact their local pharmacy team and get your winter flu vaccine. It is not just your health you protect when you are vaccinated, it is those most vulnerable in our society and the health service that is already under huge strain.”

The annual flu programme officially runs from 1 October to 31 March but the vast majority of vaccinations are expected to be given before the end of December.

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