fluThe Government’s Principal Advisor on Public Health Nursing has written an open letter to nurses and midwives across the country asking them to "leading by example" by having a flu vaccine yourself to help "reinforce the benefits of immunisation and reassure people that it is safe and effective".

Viv Bennett was speaking as the UK approaches the high-risk season for influenza outbreaks occurring, and 4-year-olds in England begin to be offered free flu vaccinations for the first time as part of the annual drive to get people protected before winter.

Public Health England (PHE) wants widespread vaccination to stop flu spreading to "at risk" people and the Director of Nursing said: "We [nurses & midwives] play an influential role in promoting the need for both our colleagues and those in our care to get vaccinated.

"For this reason it is important we take care of our own health and take the precaution of getting vaccinated against flu so we can continue to provide services and protect those in our care."

Further reading: Viv Bennett's guest blog on the importance of giving children and young people the best start in life

Last winter 904 people were admitted to intensive care with flu and 98 of them died. Those most at-risk include pregnant women, young children, over 65s and those with conditions such as asthma and diabetes.

As a result, 4-year-olds have now been included for the free vaccination programme which was trialled with children up to the age of last year, and sees them receive a nasal spray rather than an injection.

'A really unpleasant illness'
Flu viruses constantly mutate so a new vaccine is devised each year and annual jabs are needed to stay protected. Vaccine uptake across NHS organisations varies from below 10% to above 90% with a national uptake of 45% (2011/12).

Prof Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer for England, added: "Flu is a really unpleasant illness, particularly for our most vulnerable patients, and it is essential that people take steps to protect themselves during the winter months.

"I would urge those who are offered the free flu vaccination to visit their GP early in the flu season.

"I also urge all health care workers to make they are vaccinated to protect themselves, their patients and their families".

PHE is in the process of extending the coverage, as the government's Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has advised offering free flu jabs to all two to 17-year-olds.

Dr Paul Cosford, director for health protection and medical director at PHE, said about 40% of pregnant women were vaccinated last year - a figure he hoped would be higher this year.

"Women can safely have the vaccine at any point during pregnancy and it can reduce the risk of complications such as pneumonia and premature birth, that can arise as a result of flu," he added.