Flu fears as vaccine gives elderly only 'limited protection'
The flu jab only provides limited protection against the virus for older people - raising new fears as experts warn of a potential epidemic this winter.
The vaccine currently being distributed to GPs and pharmacists is just 40pc to 60pc effective and may have had little or no effect in keeping older age groups safe from the illness last year.
A report from the NHS in the UK found the vaccine in use there last winter had "zero effect" among the over-65s, while protecting two in three children.
The same vaccine was used here to protect against the same strains of flu circulating.
The analysis in the UK found pensioners who had the jab fared no better than those who did not.
The Health Service Executive (HSE) said yesterday it did not have data on the number of over-65s in this country who were infected with flu last winter despite getting the jab.
A spokeswoman said the effectiveness of the flu vaccine in the elderly was reduced because their immune system was weaker than younger age groups.
"This can make them more susceptible to the flu," she said.
Doctors fear a flu outbreak in the coming months similar to the epidemic in Australia during its recent winter, when there was a surge of cases of the A (H3N2) strain, a particular risk to the elderly.
Darragh O' Loughlin , a Galway pharmacist and head of the Irish Pharmacy Union, said that despite the figures all at-risk groups, including the over-65s, should receive the flu vaccine because in doing so they were reducing the odds of getting a very serious illness.
"It is only after flu seasons are over that it is possible to do a full analysis of how effective a flu vaccine has been," he said.
"Just because it is not 100pc effective does not mean it is not worth getting."
Strains of flu can mutate during the winter and reduce protection for those who have had the jab.
Flu is responsible for between 200 and 500 deaths each year in Ireland and in a severe winter it can kill up to 1,000.
Meanwhile, an investigation is under way into allegations that some GPs in Limerick have charged elderly medical card holders €15 for the vaccine even though it should be free.
"We have commenced an investigation," a HSE spokesman said.