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Doctors urge flu shots before epidemic peaks

Influenza season is expected to peak in March in the Uusimaa region, which includes Helsinki.

Lähikuva hoitajan hansikoidusta kädestä pistämässä rokotetta miehen karvaiseen olkavarteen.
Vaccinations are available free for those in risk groups, but more than a third of this season's doses remain on shelves. Image: Sabastien Nogier / EPA

This winter's influenza season will become more active over the next few weeks, predicts Eeva Ruotsalainen, deputy chief physician of the infectious diseases division of Helsinki University Central Hospital (HUCH, also known as HUS).

"So far 19 people have been in intensive care or monitoring in the HUCH region. About 80 percent of them have had underlying conditions and were not vaccinated," she tells Yle.

Three of this season's intensive care patients have died.

"The mortality rate is 16 percent, which is quite high. On an annual basis, the mortality rate of patients in intensive care or being monitored for influenza varies between 10 and 20 percent," she explains.

Ruotsalainen particularly urges those in risk groups to get flu jabs from their local health centres. The risk groups are small children, people over age 65, pregnant women and anyone with an underlying serious disease. It takes about two weeks for the inoculation to provide full protection.

"The influenza season is expected to reach its height in March, so there is certainly still time to get vaccinated," she says.

Protection against four viruses – but not novel corona

The Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) has imported about 1.7 million injection doses of influenza vaccine to be administered free of charge to those in risk groups and their immediate circles, as well as 116,000 doses for children in the form of a nasal spray.

Ruotsalainen says that some 700,000 injection doses remain unused.

"About 1.03 million shots have been administered around the country," she says. "At the moment about half of those over 65 have been inoculated, along with about a third of children under age seven."

The seasonal flu shot is a quadrivalent, meaning it provides protection against four different flu viruses that are now circulating in Finland and elsewhere in the world, but these do not include the new form of coronavirus. Only one case of that illness has been confirmed in Finland.

"It protects against two A viruses and two B viruses. For instance, one of them is AH1N1, a progeny of swine flu that is now circulating as a seasonal flu, and seems to be proliferating here in Finland this season," says Ruotsalainen.

EDIT 11.2.2020: The headline on this story originally suggested there was a 16 percent mortality rate from flu in Helsinki. That has now been removed from the headline.

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