EU Flu Day 2023 – Empowering healthcare professionals for everyone’s protection

Around 100 people gathered in person and online to participate in the 2023 EU Flu Day event at the European Parliament. Kindly hosted by MEP István Ujhelyi (S&D, Hungary), as well as with the participation of MEP Dolors Montserrat (EPP, Spain), the event brought together healthcare players and policymakers to discuss how to increase flu vaccination uptake and better protect people in Europe from seasonal influenza.

Participants included policymakers, academics, representatives of healthcare professionals (HCPs), patient groups and vaccine developers, as well as students. What’s more, many people and organisations from across Europe took part in the #EUFluDay campaign on social media.

This year’s EU Flu Day put the spotlight on how to support doctors, nurses and pharmacists in their important work in administering flu vaccinations and informing people on the value of vaccination.

In that spirit, the Steering Group on Influenza Vaccination issued a set of Policy Recommendations for Empowering healthcare professionals for everyone’s protection. These detail different ways regional, national and European policymakers can support HCPs’ important work in boosting flu vaccine uptake.

Opening the event, MEP István Ujhelyi described how, fuelled by the COVID-19 pandemic, health policy, once considered a narrow national competence, has risen on the EU agenda. He emphasised the importance of advocacy in Brussels to push for stronger EU policies on vaccination and argued that health challenges have major impacts on other policy areas.

Isabel De la Mata Barranco, Principal Advisor for Health and Crisis Management in the European Commission’s DG SANTE, outlined current EU policy actions in the field of flu vaccination. She highlighted the ECDC’s work on surveillance of flu vaccination coverage rates, including a new report on flu vaccination recommendations and coverage in different EU countries. The publication shows that, for the 2020-2021 flu season, vaccination rates for people over 65 varied from just 4.5% in Latvia to 75% in Denmark. What is more, the report notes that national data on the flu vaccination of adults with chronic conditions is “very scarce”.

In terms of policy actions on infectious diseases, Ms De la Mata Barranco said the EU4Health programme is investing 100 million euros to enhance national surveillance systems so that policymakers can react quickly when infections spread. She also pointed to the EU institutions’ collaborations on this issue with the WHO and ECDC.

Professor Colin Russell, Board Chair of the European Scientific Working Group on Influenza and other Respiratory Viruses (ESWI) and a Member of the Steering Group, highlighted the burden of flu and the benefits of vaccination. Up to 50 million people in the EU are infected with seasonal influenza every year, leadings to tens of thousands of deaths, tens of millions of lost workdays and tremendous strain on health systems. Professor Russell noted that flu vaccination is a cost-effective way of preventing infections, reducing risk to both individuals and societies.

Emilie Karafillakis, European Research Lead at the Vaccine Confidence Project and Member of the Steering Group, presented research on vaccine confidence across different populations. She noted that belief in the safety and importance of flu vaccination was high in the general population and among HCPs. However, HCPs often do not recommend flu vaccination to different vulnerable groups, such as pregnant women, due to lack of clear vaccination recommendations at national level. She advised listening to people hesitant about vaccination rather than stigmatising them.

Professor George Griffin, Board Member and former President of the Federation of European Academies of Medicines (FEAM) argued for the importance of vaccine accessibility. Getting vaccinated should be convenient and digital systems prompting people to get vaccinated should be simple and functional. He concluded emphatically on the need to tackle flu: “We forget about influenza at our peril. It’s as simple as that.”

Ilaria Passarani, Secretary General of European Community Pharmacists (PGEU), also emphasised the importance of accessibility. Currently 15 EU countries allow vaccination in pharmacies for various diseases, including COVID-19 and flu. She said that vaccination in pharmacies enables higher coverage rates and that pharmacists can also have an important role in identifying and prompting vulnerable people visiting their pharmacy to get vaccinated.

Susanna Palkonen, Director of the European Federation of Allergy and Airways Diseases Patients Associations (EFA), said seasonal influenza can be extremely dangerous to certain key vulnerable groups, including those represented by EFA. She noted that HCPs are time and time again found to be the most trusted source of information for patients. As reminders and convenience are crucial to increasing people’s willingness to get vaccinated, Ms Palkonen recommended using digital tools to prompt people to get vaccinated and to set appointments.

MEP Montserrat closed the event by recalling the enduring importance of flu vaccination as well as the essential role of HCPs. Flu vaccination is a powerful way of making healthcare systems more resilient and sustainable overall, as recently demonstrated during last winter’s “tripledemic” of infectious diseases. She emphasised the importance of pharmacists in rural areas where a doctor’s office or hospital are far way, as well as the need to combat disinformation and fake news. Noting that her native Spain’s flu vaccination coverage for people over 65 had increased in recent years, MEP Montserrat concluded that political will can lead to significant increases in vaccination uptake.