Those in France who are eligible for a flu vaccination are urged to book an appointment as soon as possible, as the health minister warns that takeup of the free jab has been ‘mediocre’ this winter.
Health Minister Aurélien Rousseau has called for a ‘jump start’ in the numbers. The flu vaccination campaign began on October 17 and will finish on January 31, 2024.
Mr Rousseau has ‘sounded the alarm’, and said: “It is now at a worrying point. We need to take action. Otherwise, the hospitals and the most vulnerable will pay the highest price.”
Between two to six million people catch flu each winter in France. Between November 2022 and April 2023, the virus claimed 1,505 lives; with 110,918 people hospitalised for symptoms, according to health authority data.
Three regions at pre-epidemic stage
Writing on X (formerly Twitter), the minister said: “The pre-epidemic indicators are moving for flu. It will gradually spread. Now is more than ever the moment to get vaccinated to fight an epidemic, which every year has a heavy impact on people and on our health system.”
Les indicateurs pré-épidémiques bougent sur la grippe. Elle va progressivement s’étendre. C’est encore et plus que jamais le moment de se faire vacciner pour contrer une épidémie qui, chaque année, a un lourd impact humain et sur notre système de santé. pic.twitter.com/Qd7YQV9AHX— Aurélien Rousseau (@aur_rousseau) November 29, 2023
His warning comes after health authority Santé publique France (SPF) said that there has already been a "slight increase in the majority of influenza and influenza-like illness indicators" in France this winter.
In its update from November 20-26, SPF said that the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, Île-de-France and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur regions were in a “pre-epidemic stage” of the illness.
‘One million fewer people vaccinated’ this year
Pharmacists have also warned that take-up levels for the vaccination have been low this year in comparison to last.
“If nothing is done, we will end the season with one million fewer people vaccinated against flu than last year,” said Philippe Besset, president of the pharmaceutical union la Fédération des syndicats pharmaceutiques de France (FSPF), in an interview with Le Parisien.
Science journalist Nicolas Berrod has found that by the 43rd day of the vaccination campaign last year, 8.9 million people had received their jab at a pharmacy. This year, the figure was 8.3 million, with the gap continuing to widen.
Even last year, France was already considered to be ‘behind’ on vaccinating people. The World Health Organization target is 75% of vulnerable people (equating to 18 million people); but in 2022-23, France managed just 51.5%.
In a statement, the Union des syndicats de pharmaciens d'officine said that so far in 2023, there has been “a delay in flu vaccination of almost five points compared to 2022 in the general population”. This equates to almost 500,000 patients.
Mr Besset, from the FSPF, said that this deficit will lead to “1,000 more hospitalisations and a few hundred more deaths”.
The predicted one million deficit (by the end of the campaign, if nothing is done) would necessarily push this even higher.
Why has the take-up been so much lower this year?
Some health experts have suggested several reasons, including problems with the campaign’s organisation, and ‘vaccine fatigue’ among the population as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“This year, the target groups received their vaccination vouchers very early, around a month and a half before the campaign began,” said Pierre-Olivier Variot, president of the USPO union.” They came to see us, we sent them home [because the campaign hadn’t started yet], and then they forgot."
He said that ideally, “people should be able to get their vaccine from the pharmacy as soon as they receive their voucher”.
Mr Besset has said that he believes three main reasons explain the shortfall this year.
Firstly, ‘vaccine fatigue’ in the wake of repeated vaccination campaigns due to Covid; secondly, what he calls a lack of effective communication by health authorities on the importance of the flu vaccine; and thirdly, the Covid vaccination campaign that is happening at the same time.
“It is sometimes difficult to explain to people that we are going to vaccinate them against Covid in one arm and influenza in the other on the same day,” he told TF1.
In a bid to improve flu take-up the Ministry of Health told Le Parisien that, from next week, the Assurance maladie will do more to encourage those who “have not yet been vaccinated to take the plunge”.
Who can have a free vaccination?
Those aged 65 and over
Those aged under 65 with certain chronic conditions
People who are significantly overweight (Body Mass Index over 40)
Anyone in contact with at-risk and immunocompromised individuals, including infants and children
Anyone who works in the homes of at-risk individuals
Professionals who work with pigs or birds
People who are eligible for a free vaccination should receive notification from the Assurance maladie. However, if they do not contact you, this does not mean that you are not eligible.
Contact your doctor or a pharmacist if in doubt.
Who can perform the vaccination?
What if I am not at-risk and want a flu vaccination?
The vaccine can be purchased at pharmacies and costs between €6 and €12 depending on the brand. You can ask a doctor, pharmacist, nurse or midwife to administer the vaccination.
The price of a vaccination for people not targeted by the winter flu campaign is:
In a pharmacy: €7.50
By a nurse: €7.56
By a doctor: €8.50 (the €25 consultation is reimbursed 70% for vaccinations)
By a midwife: €8.50