Health Topics

Vaccination against flu and pneumonia during the COVID-19 pandemic

Pneumonia and influenza are totally preventable respiratory infections. Nevertheless, thousands of cases are diagnosed every year. This year, in addition, there is another virus that causes respiratory symptoms: COVID-19. To reduce bed occupancy at hospitals and to keep as much of the workforce as active as possible, vaccinating against the flu is considered especially strategic this year.

Stock image from the Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine Service, Hospital Clínic de Barcelona. Photographer Francisco Avia

It is estimated that flu epidemics cause between three and five million cases of serious illness a year, and more than 200,000 deaths from respiratory infection across the world. Multiple studies have shown that vaccinating against influenza, the virus that causes flu, reduces the risk of developing a more serious case of the disease, as well as reducing hospitalisation and the number of admissions to intensive care units.

Meanwhile, pneumonia is the main infectious cause of mortality across the world, especially in children under 5, people over 65 years and people with chronic diseases. This disease is primarily caused by the bacteria Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus) which, when it affects people with chronic diseases, significantly increases the risk of hospitalisation. For example, in a patient with a previous crhonic disease such as diabetes, liver disease or reduced immunity, the risk of having pneumococcal pneumonia may increase up to 60%. It is estimated that pneumococcal pneumonia causes 10,000 hospital admissions in Spain every year.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, between 7% and 11% of coinfections have been recorded in patients with COVID-19, in which the flu virus was one of the most frequent.

Elderly people, especially those who live in assisted living facilities, have been a very vulnerable population during the COVID-10 pandemic, mainly due to the rapid propagation of the virus, which is associated with a high number of deaths. Patients over 80 years who received mechanical ventilation had a mortality rate of 90%, which demonstrates the vulnerability of this population.

The World Health Organization recommends keeping vaccination programmes against influenza, pneumococcus and whooping cough active, at the same time as implementing measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. These measures can help to reduce occupancy of hospital beds, therefore making more resources available to treat patients with COVID-19.

Vaccination against flu is particularly important for healthcare professionals, as studies show that they reduce symptomatic and asymptomatic infections by approximately 80%. The vaccine is an essential strategy for protecting healthcare staff, particularly this year.

The flu vaccine is administered annually during flu season, while the pneumonia vaccine can be administered at any time of the year. The groups advised to get the flu vaccine are people aged over 65 years, immunosuppressed people, people with chronic diseases that are considered a risk factor, healthcare staff and pregnant women. As for pneumonia, the recommendation is aimed mainly at adults over 60 years of age, and people with risk factors, including immunosuppressed people.

Author: Catia Cillóniz, Coordinator of Pneumonia Research at the CIBERES Group, Applied Research in Respiratory Diseases, Associate Professor at the University of Barcelona