Swine Flu Fears Grow
As NHS Staff Shun Vaccine
The Department of Health has ordered NHS bosses across England to
ensure that frontline staff get immunised against swine flu amid
growing signs that many doctors and nurses intend to shun the vaccine.
Chief executives and boards who run hospitals, primary care trusts
and strategic health authorities have been told to urgently maximise
the number of workers having the jab. Leading DH figures including
Sir Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer, have written to
them six times in the last five weeks stressing the need for action
before the second wave of the pandemic causes major problems.
Ian Dalton, the NHS's national director of flu resilience, last
week warned that vaccination of nurses, doctors and other frontline
staff was "absolutely critical" and that widespread
take-up of the jabs "will help us to save lives".
The DH's letters stress that patients' health could be put at
risk and the NHS left seriously short-staffed through virus-related
absenteeism if senior managers do not overcome "perceived
obstacles" to the vaccination of workers. Swine flu's threat
is so great that the NHS must avoid only small numbers of personnel
getting immunised, as usually happens with seasonal flu every
winter, the letters add.
They stress that vulnerable patients could be endangered if staff
decide not to heed repeated urgings from Donaldson and other senior
figures to have the vaccine. There are growing signs that large
numbers of workers will shun the jabs because they see them as
unnecessary and potentially unsafe.
Dalton wrote to the chief executives of local NHS organisations
in England on 10 September telling them: "We all know that
uptake of the seasonal flu vaccine among NHS staff is traditionally
low. It is an NHS board responsibility that we do not find ourselves
in this position with the swine flu vaccine."
But hospital chief executives have told the Guardian that they
expect as few as 10%-20% of their staff to get vaccinated and
cannot fulfil the DH's demands because the jabs, which are due
to begin within days, are entirely voluntary.
One chief executive of a busy urban hospital in one of the swine
flu "hotspots" said: "At the moment in my hospital
if nothing changes then it could be that 10%-20% of staff have
the swine flu jab
Staff could have the virus and pass it
on to patients, a proportion of whom will die, albeit a very small
He added: "The other consequence is that if loads of staff
go off with swine flu that will leave us short-staffed, which
is dangerous to patients. That's a bigger danger than transmission."
Another hospital chief executive said: "Ideally it should
be 100% of frontline staff having the swine flu vaccine. But it
obviously isn't going to be. I hope we'll get at least the 50%
we usually get for seasonal flu. This is important because although
this strain of swine flu is mild in most people, if it's contracted
by someone with an underlying health condition that can be serious."
One medical director at another hospital added: "The word
on the street in NHS staff circles is that the vaccine is no good
and you shouldn't bother with it. Nurses in particular worry that
there may be side-effects, that corners have been cut in producing
the vaccine and that the generally mild nature of the virus means
they don't need to take it. As few as 10%-15% of doctors may have
it because we doctors believe ourselves to be above such trivial
things as infections."
A poll by Nursing Times magazine last week showed that the proportion
of nurses who do not intend to get vaccinated has risen from 31%
in August to 47%, while those who definitely will has fallen from
35% to 23%.
Dame Christine Beasley, the chief nursing officer for England,
responded by stressing that the vaccine is "as safe as a
vaccine can be" and adding: "Nothing in life is risk-free.
I can well understand people being worried. I can well understand
people thinking it's only a mild illness and why should I bother?
I do understand all that, I think you wouldn't be human if you
didn't think that." Beasley wants directors of nursing to
act as role models to allay concerns among frontline nurses.
Hospital chief executives say privately that Donaldson's repeated
reminders of the mild nature of swine flu's effects in those who
contract it, and recent claim that the UK is "tantalisingly
close" to beating the virus, may be leading staff to believe
that vaccination is not important.
The health department said: "Frontline healthcare workers
will be absolutely crucial in the height of a pandemic
without them, patient care will suffer, and the NHS will be stretched.
Getting the swine flu vaccine will protect them and their patients."
It added: "All NHS organisations will be working hard to
ensure that all eligible staff have the choice to protect themselves
and their patients from swine flu by having the vaccine."
Reference Source 147
October 13, 2009