The German government has ordered over 26 million vaccine doses for the upcoming flu season, more than ever before.
With cases of Covid-19 expected to rise rapidly over the winter months, it is hoped that widespread flu vaccination will play a vital role in keeping increasingly-important hospital beds free.
Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn has urged as many Germans as possible to book a flu-jab appointment, stressing that vaccination is more important than ever this year to prevent the healthcare system from becoming overwhelmed.
What is the flu, and how does it differ from the common cold?
The common cold and the flu are both respiratory illnesses but they are caused by different viruses.
The symptoms of the two diseases are often very similar, but symptoms of the flu will usually appear rapidly and all at once, whilst a common cold will develop more gradually.
Common flu symptoms include fatigue, a high fever, cough, sore throat, and aches and pains.
Some of these symptoms are similar to those of coronavirus. You should contact your doctor, your local hotline or the non-emergency number 116 117 if you are unsure if it coronavirus and they can advise you on the next steps.
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Those suffering from colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose than a high fever, and will usually experience less intense versions of the other symptoms mentioned above.
Whilst most cold sufferers recover within a few days, the flu is often harder to overcome and is more likely to lead to serious complications.
Who should get vaccinated against the flu?
The Standing Committee on Vaccination at the German Robert Koch Institute (RKI) has published a list of population groups particularly at risk of suffering from complications if they contract the flu.
The ‘at-risk’ groups for whom vaccination is strongly recommended are as follows:
Those above the age of 60
All pregnant women in their 2nd or 3rd trimester, as well as women in their 1st trimester who are particularly at risk of illness-related complications
People with chronic respiratory illnesses, heart or circulation problems, liver or kidney problems, diabetes or other metabolic diseases, chronic neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis or immune diseases.
Those living in care homes
Those living with (or in regular close contact with) people in the above risk groups
Those working in high-risk professions such as medicine, or in settings where they find themselves in regular contact with the public
Those in direct contact with poultry and wild birds should also get vaccinated. While the vaccine does not protect against bird flu, it prevents possibly dangerous cases of infection with both types of flu.
Adults under 60, teenagers and children may wish to consider vaccination if they find themselves in regular contact with those in at-risk groups, but the cost may not be covered by their health insurance.
Why is flu vaccination particularly important in 2020?
While vaccination isn’t compulsory in Germany, it is strongly recommended for those in risk groups.
This year, there has been a particular push from both national health authorities and the federal government to increase vaccination rates, which have been low in recent years, causing concern.
You can receive a flu vaccination at most medical practices across Germany. Photo: DPA
The RKI stresses that those at high-risk of flu-related complications are usually those at high risk of falling severely ill with Covid-19, especially those over the age of 60 and those suffering from chronic illnesses.
A high vaccination rate is also essential this year to avoid a large wave of flu cases. It is hoped this will free up intensive care beds and equipment needed to treat sufferers of Covid-19, for which there is still no approved vaccine.
Where can I get vaccinated in Germany?
Vaccinations can be carried out by your local Hausarzt (general practitioner), and should be covered by your insurance if you belong to a risk group. Simply visit the practice with your health insurance card to get vaccinated. If you are not sure if you qualify for a free flu jab, call your doctor up to ask.
Many other specialist medical practices (such as pediatric or gynecological) also offer walk-in services.
Some employers will also offer a free vaccination service for their employees to ensure they remain fit enough to work, but this is not always the case.
When should I get vaccinated?
The immunity offered by the vaccination only lasts for around six months, and it takes around two weeks after vaccination for the body to build up immunity to the virus.
Therefore, the RKI suggests that October and November are the best months to ensure maximum protection throughout the seasonal flu wave, which usually peaks between December and March/April.
Will there be enough flu vaccines this year?
The German Medical Association has expressed concern that an increased demand for flu vaccines will lead to a shortage in supply.
Some regions in Germany have already reported long waiting lists, but Health Minister Spahn stressed that vaccines will be available for everyone who needs them, if not all at once.
While he admits that not everyone will be able to access the vaccine immediately, getting vaccinated in November or December will still offer sufficient protection.
He also pointed out that between four and six million vaccine doses are disposed of every year because they have not been used, and that more vaccines are available this year than ever before.
With reporting by Eve Bennett