Frankfurt The number of influenza infections in Germany is increasing – according to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the flu epidemic began in Germany at the end of October. Before the corona pandemic, flu outbreaks usually only started in January and then lasted three to four months.
According to the RKI, the activity of acute respiratory diseases is at the level of the pre-pandemic years. Influenza viruses in particular are currently circulating, followed by RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), which mainly affects children up to the age of four. The corona virus, on the other hand, is currently detected significantly less in the laboratory samples sent in.
In the last two winters, there was no flu epidemic – also because of the mask requirement, distance rules and contact restrictions in the corona pandemic. Experts like Carsten Watzl, Secretary General of the German Society for Immunology, warn that this could change if the measures are relaxed this winter.
In the southern hemisphere, where the winter season starts six months earlier, Australia had already felt the brunt of a new wave of influenza – with infection rates well above pre-pandemic levels.
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Jens Vollmar, medical director of vaccines at the pharmaceutical company GSK, also fears that this could be a harbinger of the season in the northern hemisphere. “As a result of the pandemic and the associated protective measures in the population, basic immunity against pathogens transmitted via the respiratory tract such as the influenza virus has fallen. If we don’t get Covid-related restrictions and citizens have normal freedom of movement, we should see a heavier flu season,” he says.
According to the RKI, protection against respiratory viruses is provided by complying with the hygiene rules and wearing a mask when meeting indoors.
In addition, the Standing Vaccination Commission (Stiko) recommends flu vaccinations for certain groups in the population: people with an increased risk of serious illnesses, i.e. all women and men over the age of 60, pregnant women and chronically ill people of all ages, as well as medical specialists and nursing staff and, in general, everyone who endangers people at risk be able.
Flu: Vaccination rate is 35 to 38 percent
There are currently enough flu vaccines: the Paul Ehrlich Institute has released around 28.4 million vaccine doses so far. That’s slightly less than in the same period last year, when 33.8 million doses were available. The problem in Germany is not too little vaccine, but that too few people are vaccinated against influenza.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a vaccination rate of at least 75 percent for people aged 60 and over. Germany is far from that. In recent years, only around 35 to 38 percent of those over 60 in this country have been vaccinated. An exception was the first Corona winter, in which 47.3 percent in this age group were vaccinated – probably also because there were no vaccines against Covid-19 at that time and many people wanted to get a certain protection against infection through the flu vaccination.
There are no official figures as to how high the quota was last year. Evaluations by Techniker Krankenkasse show that the willingness of their insured to vaccinate has fallen to around 44 percent.
The data from the market research institute Iqvia, which is exclusively available to the Handelsblatt, also suggests this conclusion. After a significant jump from 17 to 25 million doses in the 20/21 flu season, 24 million doses were dispensed last winter. And so far this season, the demand for vaccines seems to have fallen again: According to information from the pharmaceutical wholesale association Phagro, orders have so far been slightly below the level of last year.
Billions in sales for Sanofi, GSK, CSL Seqirus and Viatris
A total of nine vaccines have been approved for use against seasonal flu this year. Most of these contain antigens from four influenza virus strains (two influenza A and two influenza B viruses) that have been adapted in accordance with WHO recommendations.
Only a few companies worldwide still offer flu vaccines. Together they achieve sales of several billion euros. The production is considered to be expensive, with most flu vaccines, the virus strains are multiplied in the chicken egg. The French are among the largest providers SanofiGSK based in UK, csl Australia’s Seqirus and US-based Viatris, a merger of the generics company Mylan with the branded products division of Pfizer.
Sanofi and Viatris have supplied the majority of vaccine doses in Germany in recent years. GSK, in turn, operates the largest influenza vaccine production facility in Germany: around 50 million influenza vaccine doses for the northern hemisphere and ten million for the southern hemisphere are produced at the traditional location in Dresden every year.
It is unclear whether the willingness of Germans to vaccinate will increase against the background of the flu wave that has already started. The threshold for getting vaccinated has been lowered again by the fact that pharmacies have also been able to carry out flu vaccinations since this month.
The corona pandemic has shown how important it is to record vaccination rates promptly in order to achieve vaccination goals. However, there is no such monitoring for other vaccinations in Germany, criticizes GSK vaccine expert Vollmar and finds: “Digitization should work on a topic of such great interest for public health.” The best protection of the individual against serious infectious diseases is a functioning one Vaccination system – with high vaccination rates even in times between two pandemics.