asked the Minister for Health if he will make a statement concerning the practicability, cost and necessity of making available to the population at large supplies of flu vaccine.
Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Flu Vaccine.
The question raised by the Deputy is one which I have had under examination for some time and I welcome this opportunity of making a statement in the matter.
It would be a comparatively easy matter to decide whether vaccination against influenza should be offered to the population at large if such vaccine gave the same measure of protection as vaccines against other infectious diseases such as poliomyelitis and diphtheria where the immunity offers immunity over a lengthy period to a high proportion of those vaccinated.
Unfortunately this is not the position in relation to influenza. The virus which causes this disease has shown a tendency to vary in character. For example, the A.2/Hong Kong/68 virus which was isolated in the 1968, 1969, and 1970 epidemics differs from viruses previously isolated.
These variations cause difficulties, because to ensure adequate protection it is essential that the vaccine should match the strain of influenza virus causing the particular outbreak. Manufacturers of vaccine are in the dilemma of whether to prepare vaccine suitable for the strain of virus which last attacked the community or to wait until the type of flue virus prevalent in a particular year is identified and then endeavour to manufacture sufficient stocks of the vaccine required.
Again, there is conflicting medical views as to the extent of protection afforded by current vaccines—it has been put as low as 30 per cent to 40 per cent of those vaccinated and as high as 70 per cent.
Furthermore, flu vaccines give protection for a relatively short period. In the case of vaccines against Asian flu it was claimed that there was a material degree of immunity for three to four months which was maintained, though in a lessening degree, for six months or more and at the end of a year there was only some slight immunity still evident.
The cost of making vaccination against influenza available to the population at large would be in the region of £2 million. For the reasons stated above this would be an annual charge.
In all the circumstances I would not consider it feasible or practicable at present to introduce a scheme to make vaccination against influenza available to the population as a whole.
In present circumstances I see no reason to depart from the advice which I gave health authorities last year to offer influenza vaccine to priority groups, including persons medically at risk, persons in county homes and mental hospitals, persons in institutions for the care of the aged and chronic sick, hospital staffs, staffs of health authorities employed on field medical services and general medical practitioners.
I would also reiterate my recommendation to employers, in my reply to a previous parliamentary question on 18th December, 1969, that they might consider adopting immunisation against influenza for their staffs. This would apply particularly to key workers in industry and in transport, communications, etc.
Would the Minister not agree that, if the vaccine is to be given, it should be given either in late October or early November and that it is ridiculous to give injections against influenza in December and January?
We could have a prolonged discussion on this. In actual fact, we were only notified on December 9th last year of the nature of the virus. It had only been fully analysed so that we knew what it was by December, but the difficulty always is that, even if we decided to vaccinate everybody we would not know soon enough what virus was causing the outbreak or how to provide sufficient quantities of the vaccine.
Is it not true that, although serum was available in the country, the vaccinations did not take place in October or November?
We managed to get enough vaccine and we were in time to provide 50,000 vaccinations for the people at risk by the time we had received the full information from the World Health Organisation, firstly, of the nature of the virus and, secondly, that the virus was beginning to spread towards Europe.
Has the vaccine been made available to members of the Defence Forces?
I am not sure about that. The Deputy would need to put down a Question.