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Fight the flu: how can your organisation prepare for winter?

Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, urges health and care bodies to fight the consequences of a potential flu epidemic by getting involved with national campaigns throughout the cold season.

The words “winter crisis” can hardly be avoided in health headlines at the moment. It’s well established that this time of year is particularly burdensome for an already overstretched health service, and at the heart of that is the perennial issue of flu.

The issue, naturally, is a continuing source of anxiety for healthcare leaders. The NHS Confederation, NHS Employers’ parent organisation, polled its members and found that 92% of health leaders are “concerned” about their ability to handle this tough period, with 62% of those “extremely concerned”.

Fears have already emerged that we may be unable to escape a flu epidemic in 2017, and Simon Stevens, CEO of NHS England, has highlighted the fact that hospitals in Australia and New Zealand have been hit by the worst flu season in years; it is possible the same strain could find its way to the UK.

With this in mind, NHS Employers continues to run its flu fighter campaign, with a view to boosting vaccination levels among health and social care workers, protecting them and those around them, and thereby going some way towards mitigating the intense pressure on the health service this winter.

Throughout flu season, we work in partnership with Public Health England, supported by the Department of Health, to provide advice, guidance and campaign materials for staff vaccination campaigns. This includes an awards scheme which recognises trusts whose campaigning has been especially successful and innovative for the work they’ve done.

At last year’s awards, for example, Birmingham Women’s and Children’s NHS FT won the Innovative Flu Fighter Award, after it identified an opportunity to support UNICEF’s work providing tetanus vaccines to mothers and newborn babies across parts of the African continent. The Get a Jab, Give a Jab initiative meant every flu jab given was matched with 10 tetanus jabs for UNICEF, and helped the trust reach an uptake of 95.2% among staff.

The second week in November, furthermore, is #jabathon (6-10 November), a week of social media activity throughout which NHS Employers encourages health and social care workers to share the reasons they chose to get their flu vaccination, to nominate others to get theirs and to hold positive conversations about the vaccination.

There has been much debate over what the solution to the winter crisis should be, with Labour positing a £500m winter bailout fund, while my colleague Niall Dickson, NHS Confederation chief executive, has said a cash injection will not solve this year’s problems.

The key, then, is to focus on stemming the tide of infections. Because the very young, the elderly and people with underlying medical conditions are the most vulnerable, we must start with frontline healthcare workers, and that means boosting vaccination levels.

Clinical evidence shows frontline workers are the most likely to be exposed to the virus and, in turn, could expose these vulnerable patients through contact in clinical or care settings. Infection comes with the possibility of severe complications, including bronchitis, secondary bacterial pneumonia and – more rarely – meningitis, encephalitis, or even death, and even previously healthy people may be at risk.

During the 2016 to 2017 flu season, 63.2% of all frontline healthcare workers across all trusts with direct patient contact were reported to have received the seasonal influenza vaccine in England. This marks a significant increase in uptake from the 2015 to 2016 season, when 50.6% of all frontline healthcare workers received the seasonal influenza vaccine.

The highest seasonal influenza vaccine uptake by a single staff group was 68.9%, achieved among all support clinical staff across England, followed by GP practice nurses with an uptake of 65.4%. The lowest uptake was 56.7% in support to GP staff.

These figures are reassuring – in fact, the overall uptake was the highest total ever recorded – but they also show there is still more work to be done.


(Top image c. CatLane)


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