Tell us more about flu vaccine programme

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 February, 2011, 12:00am

To understand why few Hong Kong people are vaccinated against the current flu outbreak we need to go back to the swine flu scare in 2009. That epidemic peaked before a vaccine became generally available. As a result most people did not seek it. A survey commissioned by health officials showed that people felt the chances of infection were low and those of severe illness even lower. They were also discouraged by reports of possible complications, even though they were statistically rare.

Now that the flu season is upon us again, public hospitals and accident and emergency departments have been flooded with patients suffering flu-like symptoms, with some requiring intensive care. The government is providing free seasonal flu vaccines to target vulnerable groups, and subsidising vaccination by private doctors. But again the public response has been poor.

It is natural for people to be sceptical about new vaccines. But there were lessons to be learned from the swine flu experience if such caution was not to become irrational. Health officials seemed to have heeded them when they announced plans for better communication on the benefits and risks of side effects from vaccinations.

But there is little evidence of it, or of a change in public attitudes. Authorities such as the Hong Kong Medical Association and medical academics have criticised the Centre for Health Protection for lacking basic data about infection patterns and an effective education programme on flu prevention. The HKMA has even called for consideration of free flu vaccinations for all, at an estimated cost of more than HK$200 million, arguing that the savings from fewer admissions to overstretched hospitals and less time lost off work would make it worthwhile.

Ultimately, we are responsible for our own health. The cost of free vaccination would be a drop in the bucket of outlays on health care. But there is not much point in it if people cannot make informed decisions. Experts say the current flu outbreak has not yet peaked. The return of cold weather is an extra prompt to the government to shake up its communications and education strategy.