One hundred years ago, at least 50 million people died as a result of the influenza pandemic. Today flu remains a threat as an acute viral infection that can spread rapidly among people who are in close contact with each other – especially during the winter months.
Times have moved on, but since the 1960s the flu vaccine has become an integral part of helping to prevent the spread of the infection, by vaccinating those most at risk of contracting the infection, or more likely to pass it on to others.
Nursing staff have a duty of care to their patients, and flu vaccination for health care workers with direct patient contact is fully supported by professional bodies like the RCN and British Medical Association (BMA). The RCN recommends its members are fully vaccinated as part of their professional responsibilities to reduce the risks of spreading the infection to the people they care for.
Yet there are still many nursing staff who aren’t coming forward for vaccination, despite employers offering the vaccine free of charge and the good safety record of the vaccination itself. Although rates have been rising slowing, the numbers vary greatly across the UK. The numbers of staff getting protected in England are much higher than those in Northern Ireland. In England the uptake rate for 2016/17 was 63.2% of frontline health care workers. In Northern Ireland it was just 29%. (In Scotland around 40% of patient facing and non-patient facing health care workers were vaccinated and in Wales the figure was 49.2%).
It’s an issue that concerns Lesley Pallett, who’s an RCN safety rep. She wants to encourage all nursing staff to have the vaccination and at Congress she asked delegates to consider why more nursing staff aren’t being vaccinated.
She said: "It’s a really simple way of protecting yourself, and others, against a very nasty virus. If you’ve had the flu you don‘t want to have it again and as a health care worker you wouldn’t want to pass it on to vulnerable patients as you can carry the virus without being symptomatic yourself.
"We need to know how to get the right messages out in the right way to our members, at the right time, to empower them to have the vaccination and for members to be able to get the appropriate message out to those around them."
What members said
"A flu pandemic is at the top of the list of threats to the UK," said RCN Deputy President Rod Thomson (pictured right) during the debate.
Other members were keen to ensure blame was not put on nursing staff who recognise their responsibilities to their patients, colleagues and themselves as they reflected on their experiences in their own workplaces. Flu fighter of the year 2015 Stuart Young said they used a dedicated mini bus to get across his organisation’s sites.
Looking at the wider picture, delegates were also asked to consider if we are getting patients into the best position to fight flu and whether the communications and target-setting approach was the most appropriate way to encourage people to come forward. As Jason Warriner pointed out, those in the charity sector don’t always have budgets for occupational health departments so it’s harder for them to meet these targets.
People who can’t have the vaccine were considered as well, with one member reflecting on her experience of having a serious adverse reaction to the vaccine after being coerced into having it, going against medical advice given many years ago.
Helen Donovan, RCN Professional Lead for Public Health, stresses that nurses have a professional responsibility to make sure they protect patients and therefore they need to ask line managers or occupational health departments for the vaccine early in the autumn. “It takes 10 to 14 days to develop immunity following vaccination, so it’s important to get vaccinated as soon as possible before the flu season really starts."
- An RCN exhibition on pandemics describes how the influenza pandemic affected nurses; both looking after people with influenza and how they themselves were affected by the illness.
- Read Flu: the facts
- Read Protect yourself and your patients this winter
- Read the RCN’s UK Influenza clinical guide
- Visit the NHS flu fighter website
- Find out more about RCN Congress and watch the debate.