More pharmacies in the UAE to offer flu vaccines, health officials say

Health officials urge vulnerable people, including pregnant women, to get the shot before flu season starts

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More local pharmacies will soon be allowed to administer flu vaccines, UAE health officials said on Monday.

Some in Abu Dhabi are already providing the service, and pharmacies in Dubai will be rolling it out as soon as October.

As the Ministry of Health and Prevention officially launched its seasonal influenza campaign, it also announced free vaccines will be offered to health workers and vulnerable groups.

Health officials had previously advised that a gap of two weeks be left after any Covid-19 booster shot, but Monday's launch clarified that this is no longer the case.

Meanwhile, doctors in the private sector said they were alarmed at the complacency towards flu vaccines among the vulnerable, particularly pregnant women.

The campaign, themed "Protect yourself ... protect your community", launched on September 26 in co-operation with Abu Dhabi Centre for Public Health, Dubai Health Authority and Department of Health Abu Dhabi.

The seasonal flu campaign is in line with the UAE’s strategy to provide comprehensive health coverage and protect members of society against infectious diseases, and will run until December.

Dr Hussain Abdul Rahman Al Rand, assistant undersecretary for the public health sector at the Ministry of Health and Prevention, said pharmacies could be more convenient for those wanting to take the flu jab.

“If people cannot make it to their primary healthcare provider, such as a hospital, then they can visit a pharmacy, as long as it complies with a special set of regulations from the health authority, such as adequate infection control measures,” he said.

“This will happen soon, probably by the end of the month. Each pharmacy must apply to offer this service in advance.

“In Abu Dhabi this has already started and we will see this happening in Dubai and across the Northern Emirates very soon.

“We expect this to be in operation by the start of October.

“Per the latest international studies and guidelines we also now know it is safe to take a Covid vaccine on the same day as a flu vaccine.”

Special training for health workers

The campaign aims to enhance community awareness on the importance of having a seasonal flu vaccine and increase awareness among health workers.

Training is being given to them on the best international practices to prevent complications from the influenza virus, providing flu vaccines and increasing vaccine coverage rates.

It will focus more on the most vulnerable groups that might experience influenza complications, including the elderly, pregnant women and those with chronic diseases.

“Free flu vaccines will be available for those who are more at risk of developing complications, such as those with chronic disease like diabetes, heart disease or kidney disease,” said Dr Hind Al-Awadhi, director of health promotion and education at Dubai Health Authority.

“It will also apply to pregnant women, those aged 65 and above and healthcare providers according to their health insurance guidelines.”

Protecting children from the flu

Children aged six months to five years old are one of the categories that should be vaccinated in the vulnerable group.

“Because of the Covid vaccine last year, people were more reluctant to come forward to take the flu vaccine, so we increased the awareness and education as a result,” Dr Al-Awadhi said.

“We ended up with a good influenza coverage rate last year [in Dubai] and we expect to see that improved even further this year.

“Taking both vaccines on the same day [Covid and influenza] will also make it more convenient for people who may still need to take a Covid booster.

“All the studies say it is safe to take both vaccines simultaneously.”

Residents are advised to contact their doctor to discuss whether a Covid booster is necessary for them.

When flu becomes something else

Complications arising from a flu infection in the unvaccinated can include bacterial pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections and a worsening of existing chronic health conditions such as heart problems, asthma or diabetes.

Symptoms include fever, cough, headache, muscle and joint aches, fatigue and a sore throat with runny nose.

Primary care centres and private clinics across the country will offer the flu vaccine under some general health insurance plans, or for a fee of about Dh75.

“Delivering vaccines from pharmacies was something we first saw at the end of the Covid vaccine campaign, it is an extension of that,” said Dr Fadi Baladi, medical director at hospital group Burjeel.

“This is already done in Canada and the US because it gives easier access for the public.

“The issue is not availability, rather complacency ― it seems people have forgotten that flu still exists.

“We have seen the flu rate reduce in recent years because of the infection control measures introduced during Covid, but it is creeping back in.

“We could see from PCR tests that there was a lot more Covid than flu last season.

Dr Baladi is bracing for a resurgence in flu patients, and says pregnant women should protect themselves and their child from catching the virus.

“There is a certain psychological factor, some people are tired of taking vaccines.

“We still tell all our patients to wear a mask if they have any flu-like symptoms to reduce infection.”

Updated: September 27, 2022, 7:46 AM