Free flu jabs needed for all those over 50 in Hong Kong

Although people aged 65 and above are currently covered, a survey by a non-government body has found extending the scheme could save lives, reduce overcrowding at hospitals and be more cost-effective in the long run

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 May, 2018, 3:45am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 May, 2018, 3:45am

A measure of the gravity of a flu epidemic is whether it receives the attention of top officials.

For example, last year’s unusually severe summer outbreak brought Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor out to visit an overtaxed hospital and call for action to ease the pressure.

Last winter’s peak prompted her to bring forward Lunar New Year school holidays in an attempt to stem the spread of infection. The most effective response does not come from doctors and politicians, but from the production of vaccine targeted at the latest flu virus and timely placement of orders for adequate supplies.

In that respect, the Society for Community Organisation, a non-government body, has made a suggestion to enhance the city’s protection against flu that it says would cost HK$300 million.

When measured against the cost of lost production and hospital overcrowding, not to mention loss of life, it may be money well spent. SoCO suggests expanding the free flu vaccination scheme at government clinics and health centres to all residents aged 50 and above, instead of 65 and above, covering an extra 1.5 million people.

Give 1.5 million middle-aged Hong Kong residents free flu jabs to enhance city’s protection, NGO says

Two factors prompted the organisation to advance the idea. A survey by the group found that only 45.5 per cent of the 324 people from low-income families it polled were eligible for free protection, leaving most grass-roots residents vulnerable because they could not afford to pay for jabs.

And Tim Pang Hung-cheong, a community organiser with SoCO, said there were more serious flu cases in the 50-64 age group than among children. But this group could not get free jabs unless they received Comprehensive Social Security Assistance or had a medical fee waiver under the government vaccination programme. Without a subsidy, a flu jab at a private clinic costs about HK$290, including HK$100 for the doctor’s consultation free.

Even if a vaccine does not offer total protection to the individual, it becomes proportionately more effective in safeguarding a population as coverage against infection expands. As it contracts, the opposite is true.

It is therefore bad public health policy to allow people to slip through the cracks because they cannot afford to pay for jabs. Expanding the free vaccination scheme to the 50-64 age group would go some way to closing the gap.