Flu deaths show need to boost vaccination rate

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 February, 2011, 12:00am

Health officials will review the city's flu prevention strategy amid growing criticism of the low vaccination rate, especially among health care workers.

The winter flu peak has seen nine deaths so far, with 39 patients being admitted to intensive care units.

Senior doctors and experts in infectious diseases blame the government's outdated promotion of the flu vaccination programme for the high number of severe cases and deaths this winter peak, which is expected to last until the end of March. They are also calling for a universal flu vaccination programme.

Some public hospitals have started deploying vaccination teams to individual departments to inject their colleagues, instead of asking them to visit staff clinics.

The Legislative Council's health services panel is scheduled to discuss the latest flu situation today.

Senior health officials say they will review their flu strategies, including seeking advice from an expert committee for a possible redefinition of 'high-risk' groups. The current seasonal flu peak, dominated by human swine flu, is attacking not only children and the elderly, but also young people with no underlying diseases. About 40 per cent of those suffering severe complications have no underlying diseases.

The Centre for Health Protection focuses its flu prevention efforts on nine target categories, including children under six, people aged over 65, health care workers and those in the poultry industry.

Since November, only about 360,000 people within the high-risk groups received either free or government-subsidised flu vaccinations, a 25 per cent decline from last year.

'Money does not seem to be a concern,' a senior health official said. 'Cost is not the reason why many people do not have the shots. We have to review our flu strategies and vaccination programmes and see what can be done better.'

Another health official said one urgent item on the government's agenda was to increase the vaccination rate among health care workers. 'If the public sees doctors and nurses are keen to have the vaccinations, they may follow,' the official said.

The low vaccination rate among health care workers embarrassed the authorities. Only 11,000 of the Hospital Authority's 58,000 staff have been vaccinated.

Secretary for Food and Health Dr York Chow Yat-ngok last week openly appealed to health care workers to have the flu jabs, not only to protect themselves but also their patients.

However, to get their free flu shots public health care workers have to go to a staff clinic in their hospital's district within fixed operating hours. As many work shifts and are overloaded with the winter surge, this is not always possible.

Hospital Authority chief executive Dr Leung Pak-yin said the authority would make it more convenient for staff to obtain vaccinations. At least two public hospitals - Prince of Wales Hospital in Sha Tin and United Christian Hospital in Kwun Tong - had started sending vaccines to individual departments.

Prince of Wales Hospital chief executive Dr Fong Hong said the new arrangement had been well received.