A number of cities in China have started offering free flu shots for the elderly and other vulnerable groups as experts said this winter's flu season could be tough due to declining immunity against the disease and lingering threats posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Shen Hongbing, an academician at the Chinese Academy of Engineering and deputy director of the National Administration of Disease Prevention and Control, said that after two years of low influenza activity amid the pandemic, preexisting immunity against the disease has dropped.
This year, the world has already registered a marked increase in influenza incidence rates, he said.
"With autumn and winter approaching and the northern hemisphere entering its flu season, the risk of a rapid simultaneous spread of COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases, including flu, is high," Shen said at the 2022 World Influenza Conference earlier this month.
Shen said that coping with two contagious diseases at the same time will likely overstretch medical systems and heighten the risk of death among vulnerable groups, such as the elderly and those with chronic diseases.
"As a result, it is of great significance to research how to improve surveillance, mass vaccination and disease control work during the pandemic," he said.
Feng Zijian, vice-president of the Chinese Preventive Medicine Association, said that as COVID-19 has disrupted the usual trajectories of the seasonal flu epidemic, it is likely that an anti-seasonal epidemic or novel strains could occur.
Given grim projections of this winter's flu situation, Feng said the public, particularly vulnerable groups and workers at key venues, are urged to receive their flu inoculations by November, before the peak arrives in December.
According to the latest guidelines on flu vaccination released in August by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, healthcare workers, staff and participants in major events, workers at nursery care and child care facilities, primary and high school teachers and students, as well as the elderly and those with chronic illnesses, should be prioritized for flu shots.
"It should also be noted that people aged 18 and older can receive inactivated flu and inactivated COVID-19 vaccines at the same time, one in each arm, to save time and resources," Feng added.
However, flu vaccination coverage in China has been sluggish for years. Peng Zhibin, a researcher at the China CDC, said that only 3.34 percent of the total population received flu shots for the 2020-21 flu season, compared with 52.1 percent in the United States and 40 percent in Canada during the same time."
To resolve the issue, an increasing number of localities have begun offering flu shots for free for children, seniors and health workers in recent years.
The Beijing Municipal Health Commission said on Sept 7 that it would launch a phased free flu vaccination drive beginning the middle of this month, with those aged 60 and above among the first to receive the dose, followed by primary and high school students and front-line medical workers.
Guangzhou in Guangdong province, as well as Hangzhou and Shaoxing in Zhejiang province, and Xinxiang in Henan province, have also begun offering free flu shots for the elderly, though the minimum eligible age ranges from 60 to 70 in different regions, said local health authorities.
Chen Jun, a 65-year-old resident of Beijing, said she had been getting a flu shot every year for three consecutive years and intended to receive this year's dose immediately once the local community clinic informed her.
"The shot is free and I do believe in its protective effects," Chen said.