Seanad debates

Thursday, 1 October 2020

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Vaccination Programme

10:30 am

Photo of Paul DalyPaul Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank her for coming to address this matter. It is my first opportunity to formally congratulate her on her appointment so I wish her the very best of luck.

This topic continues from the matter raised by Senator Keogan, specifically the availability of the flu vaccine in GP practices. A number of GPs have contacted me, including my own GP, who have received their first delivery of the vaccine this year. The national cold chain service, which supplies the vaccine to GPs, has indicated that general practices can only receive an amount equivalent to last year's order. We are all aware of the current circumstances and conditions, and there is promotion of a programme to administer this vaccine to target groups. The numbers that were available last year will be insufficient this year.

The practice I mention had 240 vaccines per fortnight last year. It received 240 vaccines on 21 September but they were all used five days later. The practice will not receive another order until 5 October. With this in mind, something must be done to loosen the supply.Given the year that is in it, we cannot base orders on last year's numbers. There is no comparison between the two years. Target groups aside, it has been estimated that uptake by GPs' own patients alone is double last year's rate. This will create a significant issue. We all know people who attend for ordinary checkups or unrelated ailments and decide to have the flu vaccine. If it is not available and they are told that the next order will come in on, for example, 5 October, there will be queues outside GPs' clinics that day. That is the very thing we wish to avoid.

Will the Minister of State address this issue? It must be dealt with urgently. We are in flu season and people have already started getting the vaccine. The weather has changed to autumnal. Whatever flu strain there will be this year, it is probably not too far away. This is an important matter. GPs do not have an issue with administering the vaccine to target groups, a process that is funded by the HSE, but they are finding that they must use their private vaccine supplies to do so. This incurs a major cost on GPs' practices, but cost aside, it will place further constraints on their supplies for their own patients.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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Before I call the Minister of State, and since I have not had the opportunity to do so yet, I will formally congratulate her and welcome her to the House.

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach and the Senator for their kind words.

This is an important issue, and my answer almost follows on from the previous Commencement matter. I thank the Senator for raising the issue. Seasonal influenza poses a significant challenge to vulnerable patients, the healthcare system and, in particular, the hospital sector. That challenge has never been more pronounced than it is this year, given the backdrop of Covid. To mitigate as much as possible the pressure on the health services that would result from a coincidence of the winter flu season and a resurgence of Covid-19, there will be an expanded provision of the seasonal influenza vaccine this year. All of those in the at-risk groups aged from six months up, including all those over 65 years of age and all healthcare workers, will be able to access vaccination without charges. All children aged from two to 12 years, inclusive, will also have access to vaccination without charges. Vaccines will be administered by GPs and pharmacists as in previous years.

The expanded programme will ensure that those most vulnerable to the effects of influenza will have access to vaccination without charges. By providing vaccination to those most at risk and those most likely to require hospitalisation if they contract influenza, it is anticipated that the programme will see a reduction in the number of influenza-related hospital admissions as well as a reduction in the overall spread of influenza in the community. Recently, I read a report from Australia where influenza numbers had flattened completely this year. It is being attributed to the good practices that we are all carrying on every day - wearing our masks, washing our hands and keeping our distance. I hope that the situation will be similar in Ireland, but we do not know.

The HSE has placed orders for 1.35 million doses of a quadrivalent influenza vaccine for the forthcoming winter compared with 1.1 million doses last year. However, I take on board the Senator's point about GPs only being allowed to order the same quantities as they ordered last year and that their supplies had run out within five days. I will bring that fact to the Minister.

The vaccine will be made available to all persons in an at-risk group from six months up other than children aged from two to 12 years, inclusive. The HSE has ordered 600,000 doses of the live attenuated influenza vaccine, which is delivered via nasal drops rather than injection, to be made available to children aged from two to 12 years, inclusive. In all, 1.95 million doses have been ordered this year compared with 1.1 million last year.

The first deliveries of influenza vaccines to all sites, including GPs, pharmacists and nursing homes, started on 17 September.For comparison purposes, in 2019 deliveries commenced on 16 September.

For the initial deliveries, the quantities of influenza vaccine delivered were based on one third of the total ordered last year. The quantities of vaccine made available will be increased in line with the amounts received into the country. Approximately two thirds of the total contracted quantity of adult and paediatric flu vaccines are expected to be delivered to Ireland by the end of this week, the week commencing 28 September, and 100% of both will be delivered before the end of October. Vaccines will be made available to GPs and pharmacists promptly following receipt in the country. Deliveries of the nasal vaccine used to be used for children are on schedule and have not been delayed.

The HSE is satisfied that the number of doses procured is sufficient to meet demand in the at-risk groups, and vaccination of these groups has commenced. The vaccination programme for children is expected to commence from mid-October. Deliveries of the private supply of the vaccine are expected to commence at the start of October. Although it is difficult to estimate demand among those not in the at-risk groups, the Health Products Regulatory Authority medicine shortages framework has not been notified of any shortages affecting the Irish market in relation to flu vaccines. The vaccination campaign will be accompanied by a comprehensive communications campaign to encourage the greatest possible take-up.

In order to answer the Senator's concerns, which I understand, I assure him that supplies will roll out much more quickly as they come into the country. I will follow up on the matter after the Senator's supplementary comments.

Photo of Paul DalyPaul Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for her comprehensive reply and I broadly welcome the fact that the number of vaccines coming into the country has increased to the best part of 1.95 million based on the Minister of State's answer. The kernel of my query is about the distribution of those vaccines to the GPs. It is vitally important that the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, or the Department intervene at this early stage with the supply companies to ensure they are not still working off the 2019 numbers for what GPs can receive. It is all well and good to have the vaccines in the country but it is down to the distribution. It is vitally important that the GP services are not held back by being tied to the numbers they used last year, which is what the supply company is going on at the moment.

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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As we know, influenza can be a serious illness for people in the at-risk groups, which can lead to hospitalisation and even death. To take on board the Senator's point again, the quantities of vaccines made available to sites will be increased in line with the amounts received into the country. I take on board the Senator's point, however, and I will bring it back to the Minister. When people have the mindset that they would like to get the vaccine now before the weather changes, it is important that sufficient quantities are there. As I said, I will raise that matter with the Minister.

Those who are not covered by the publicly funded vaccination campaign can avail of the vaccination on a private basis. The Government has not been notified of any shortages affecting the Irish market in respect of the flu vaccines. We have gone from 1.1 million vaccines last year to 1.95 million this year, which is almost 2 million. Hopefully that will be a sufficient quantity and that includes 600,000 children.