Amid the debate about Covid-19, a statement frequently made is that ‘it’s just like flu.’

But which flu… the mild cases of flu which the majority of people are familiar with or the deadly outbreak of winter 2017-18?

That year, the flu vaccine’s failure to protect against some of the key strains of the infection contributed to more than 50,000 extra deaths in England and Wales alone, according to data from the Office of National Statistics. It was the worst winter on record for more than 40 years, with the 1975-76 season being the last time deaths climbed so high above the expected levels.  At the same time, the toll in Scotland hit an 18-year high. There were 23,137 deaths in all between December 2017 and March 2018, according to the National Records of Scotland - the highest figure since 1999/2000.

The reason that a flu epidemic doesn’t run amok in the way that Covid-19 has done is simple – there’s a vaccine available each winter and most of the time, it’s quite effective, but it does depend on accurately predicting which strain of flu is going to be the biggest threat and then creating a vaccine which will at least stall it. And it depends on enough people getting the vaccine.

Influenza, to give its full name, leaves thousands of people hospitalised each year. It can be serious and life-threatening, with permanent damage done to the lungs and other organs, and persistent post-viral syndromes creating months of discomfort for thousands of people.

Now with COVID-19 circulating across the country, the free flu vaccination is being offered to more people than ever in Scotland.

NHS Western Isles is strongly urging everyone eligible to:

  • Protect Yourself;
  • Protect Others; and
  • Protect our NHS

by getting your flu vaccination.

This year, for the first time, social care workers, those living in the same house as people who have been shielding from COVID-19, and 55-64 year olds are now eligible. They join those aged 65 and over, those with underlying health conditions, pregnant women, children aged between two and five years, primary school children and health care workers who are already eligible.

The vaccination programme has already started for health and social care workers in the Western Isles. From the beginning of October, NHS Western Isles will be offering vaccination appointments to most other eligible groups. People aged 55-64 years will be invited for their free flu vaccine in December.

Letters will be issued shortly by NHS Western Isles inviting you to make an appointment for your flu vaccination. Contact details to make your appointment will be included in your letter. In line with the new GP contract and primary care reform, vaccinations will now be carried out by community nurses rather than by practice nurses. We will be offering appointments at a range of community locations near to your own home, as well as in local GP surgeries, to make things easier and more convenient for our local communities.

There will be strict infection prevention and control measures in place to ensure flu immunisation is done in the safest way possible. 

Primary school pupils throughout the islands will be offered the flu vaccination administered by the local school nursing team, during October and November. Most of these school children will receive the vaccine in the form of a nasal spray, avoiding the need for an injection. Consent forms have been sent home in school bags for all primary pupils, with parents and carers urged to return the form with consent to ensure their child is protected against flu this winter.

Pre-school children who are aged two and above (as at September 1, 2020) are also offered a free flu immunisation – again taken as a pain-free nasal spray – and will be invited by NHS Western Isles to make an appointment for a vaccination.

Women who are pregnant will be offered the flu vaccination by their midwife.

The flu vaccine is safe for baby and mother at any stage of pregnancy, and pregnant women across the Western Isles will be offered the flu vaccination by their midwife.

Dr Maggie Watts, NHS Western Isles' Director of Public Health, said: “Getting your flu vaccination is one of the most important reasons for leaving your home.

“Influenza is a very infectious disease which can have serious consequences and can be fatal. Those who have chronic conditions should ensure therefore that they are immunised again with this year’s vaccine. The influenza vaccination remains the best defence against the virus.

“We want everyone in the Western Isles who is at greater risk from the dangers of flu to be protected. The immunisation is safe and provides protection for up to a year. It only takes a few minutes.

“Even if you were immunised against flu last winter, it is important to receive the vaccine again this year, as the viruses change each season.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic period, it is more important than ever that you do what you can to protect yourself and your family from flu.”

Visit www.nhsinform.scot/flu or call 0800 22 44 88 to find out about getting the flu vaccine in your area.