2020 has been a year where we might feel we know more about infectious diseases and pandemics than ever before. Blood cancer patients and their loved ones have had to make some particular difficult and radical lifestyle changes in the form of shielding from COVID-19.
Just as announcements are made regarding increases in COVID-19 cases, we reach on already precarious time of year in terms of infectious diseases – flu season. There is often a misconception that flu is a mild illness, and this is true in the most part. However, like COVID-19, flu can be particularly serious for certain groups of people. Public Health England estimates that the flu causes approximately 17,000 deaths every year (an average for the 4 years between 2014/15 and 2018/19 flu seasons). This shows the burden of flu on the NHS is extremely high. Therefore, the combination of a bad flu season and COVID-19 cases could stretch the very resources that are already under immense pressure this year; we all have a duty to try to stay healthy of other illnesses where we can.
Those most at risk of serious illness from COVID-19 are also the groups most at risk from catching the flu. Recent work from Public Health England suggests that catching flu and COVID-19 together is particularly dangerous. Therefore, preventing flu could help you cope better should you be unlucky enough to contract COVID-19 too.
In many ways, we might be better prepared for this year’s flu season. We are all much more aware of the need for good hand hygiene, a measure that also helps reduce the spread of flu. But we have one extra tool in the fight against the flu that we don’t yet have for COVID-19; a vaccine. Every year, many people do not get the vaccine; it is easy to forget when you are busy with life. Yet, if we all get the vaccine this year, we will reduce the number of serious cases of flu, hopefully leaving capacity to treat any increase in COVID-19 patients.
You can find out more about the flu jab and see commonly asked questions on our flu webpage here.
Below are some questions you may have regarding this year’s flu season specifically.
Are flu jabs already available?
Yes, the flu vaccination programme is already underway at the time of writing. All blood cancers patients should be contacted to receive their free jab. If you haven’t yet heard from your GP practice or haematology team about the jab, please contact your GP surgery to book an appointment.
I have heard there are different vaccines for different age groups this year. Which one should I have if I have a blood cancer?
This year, there are different vaccines available for different age groups of people. The one being suggested for everyone over the age of 65 protects against one less strain of the flu (3 strains, instead of the 4 in the vaccine for the younger age group) but it also contains an extra ingredient, known as an adjuvant. Adjuvants are substances that boost a person’s immune response when they are given a vaccine. Older people, regardless of whether they have a blood cancer or not, have a weaker immune system, so the adjuvant helps the over 65s make the best possible immune response.
Some patients under 65 have asked whether they should have the vaccine for those over 65 to help them to respond better to the vaccine. Our clinical advisers have advised this is not necessary; the vaccine for those under 65 is suitable for blood cancer patients of this age group. If you are still concerned about which vaccine to have, please consult your own haematologist for further advice.
NOTE: blood cancer patients should never receive a live vaccine, such as the one designed for children. If in doubt, check which with your healthcare team.
Should I ask my friends and family to get vaccinated this year?
Yes. We always advise that you ask those around you to be vaccinated, as this will help prevent transmission of the flu virus to you. This would include anyone in your “support bubble”, who may not necessarily live with you. Anyone who lives at the same house as a person someone eligible for a free flu jab is also eligible for a free jab themselves. Others may have to pay for their jab. Either way, they can book this through their GP or at a pharmacy.
This year, there are plans to offer free vaccinations to those aged 50-64 with no underlying health conditions. However, this programme is not yet open and will be subject to stocks of vaccines once the most vulnerable have received their vaccine. If your family or friends fall into this category but do not want to wait for the free programme, they can pay for a vaccine as they normally would.
I am struggling to get an appointment due to demand. What can I do?
Even as someone who is eligible for the free vaccine, there may be a wait for an appointment at your GP surgery due to demand. The over 65s are also being prioritised at the time of writing. If you are struggling to get an appointment, pharmacies also offer clinics for both those who are eligible for the free vaccine as well the opportunity for others to pay for the vaccine. This includes independent pharmacies as well as the big chains and they all deliver the same vaccine available at the GP.
At the time of writing, Boots were no longer taking appointments. If you are a patient and are unable to get an appointment anywhere, please contact your haematology team for further advice.
We have already heard reports that GP surgeries are restricting appointments to vulnerable people only; if your friends and family are looking to get vaccinated, please encourage them to use pharmacies to reduce the burden on GP surgeries delivering free vaccines. At the time of writing, Boots had made the decision to restrict appointments to those eligible for free vaccines only, but many other pharmacies are available.
Is it safe for me to go to a GP practice for a vaccine?
GP practices have put in place many measures in order to protect against COVID-19. This includes only allowing those with an appointment to enter the building and use of PPE by GPs and nurses. It’s important to remember that not getting your flu jab puts you at risk of a more severe illness if you were to catch flu, and flu can be as serious or more so that COVID-19.