World Immunisation Week special blog: Immunisation saves billions of lives yet preventable illness is still a threat

As of August 2015, at least 5.5 million people in the UK had an active subscription to a gym, with monthly prices ranging as widely as from £15 per month, or £180 a year, to up to £100 per month, or £1,200 a year. As well as purchasing new gymwear and any additional paraphernalia, in 2012 UK consumers spent £385m on vitamins, minerals and dietary supplements, all money spent in the pursuit of good health and fitness.

Yet during the 2014-15 seasonal influenza season, only 50% of those aged six months to under 65 years in an at risk category received their free flu jab, a tried and tested method of keeping us healthy which requires no more exertion then popping to our GPs or booking a visit to a community pharmacy. For frontline health care workers, this figure was only 54.9%.

For the price of about four or five cups of coffee from a high street cafe, those not in an at risk group can dramatically reduce their likelihood of becoming confined to their beds for a week or more, and enduring a considerable degree of discomfort. For those in an at risk group, receiving a free flu jab can diminish the likelihood of catching a vaccine preventable disease that can cause potentially life threatening complications.

But for too many, immunisation is “just for kids”; a few jabs for toddlers and school children and a begrudged necessity when travelling to certain parts of the world. It is not viewed as the one aspect of a healthy lifestyle that doesn’t require us to abstain from a vice, work up a sweat or check a label for a food’s fat and calorie content.

We know that adult vaccination is cost effective. Of the seven vaccine preventable diseases examined by the Supporting Active Ageing Through Immunisation (SAATI) coalition in the 2013 report, Adult Vaccination: A Key Component of Healthy Ageing, influenza alone costs the UK economy more than £1 bn pounds per year in lost productivity due to staff sick leave. Analysis from the Netherlands has concluded that every one euro invested in adult vaccination commencing at the age of 50 years would yield more than four euros of future economic revenue for Government. However, at a time when the NHS is committed to achieving an efficiency saving of £22bn between 2015 and 2020, immunisation is “just for kids” in the minds of far too many.

We need to create a social norm around life course immunisation to end the perception that vaccination is just for kids. There is a role for employers, government, healthcare professionals and individuals.

We must ensure vaccination is accessible and as such the delivery of jabs through pharmacy has to be part of the solution. Pharmacies tend to be open more convenient hours than general practitioners and their high street location is attractive. For many healthy people, a trip to the pharmacy happens much more often than a trip to the GP. Let’s offer everyone eligible for flu vaccination a voucher which they can use in their GP or their pharmacy. And it would be great to see more employers paying for the flu vaccine for their staff.

We must ensure that every contact matters and when people go into hospital or their GP surgery for other conditions, they should be asked if they are up to date on their vaccinations. The health service could introduce “declination forms” to encourage people to think twice before refusing a vaccine, and it could lower the age at which people qualify for free flu jabs to 50 (if only to reiterate the message that immunisation really isn’t just for kids).

We should ensure that health and social care workers see vaccination as important. And we have to find a better way to ensure social care workers actually get the flu vaccination, which is recommended to them but not reimbursed.

We need to create a more informed “consumer”. As children we have our red vaccination books which remind us what vaccinations we have had. In adulthood we don’t have anything similar. I imagine not many adults remember when they last had their tetanus jab for example.

And finally, it is important to ensure that policymakers are aware of the benefits of adult immunisation. The International Longevity Centre – UK has created the European adult immunisation hub to provide the resources necessary to convince policymakers across Europe of the case for investing in adult immunisation. The hub is regularly updated with research, social media resources, case studies and interviews with medical practitioners and healthcare professionals.

David Sinclair is Director of the International Longevity Centre – UK, and Co-author Dave Eaton is Policy and Public Affairs Assistant at the International Longevity Centre – UK