Health officials have claimed private pharmacies have run out of the flu vaccine amid warnings the lives of thousands of Scots are “at stake” this winter after death rates reached a near 20-year high last season.
Fears over soaring heating costs and shortages of the new advanced flu vaccine have intensified after it emerged more then 23,000 Scots died during the cold weather last winter — the highest toll since 1999/2000.
But a Community Pharmacy Scotland spokeswoman confirmed many private pharmacies had run out of the standard flu vaccine for people aged 65 to 74 and would not have fresh stock for at least another month.
A host of NHS GP surgeries across Scotland are also telling patients the vaccine intended for those aged 16 to 64, who are at risk from conditions such as diabetes or pregnancy, will not be available until the end of this month. The widespread shortages could leave many vulnerable Scots unable to take up the Scottish Government’s own advice to take free shots to protect themselves before the onset of winter.
The rise in winter death rates should raise “alarm bells”, according to Scotland’s national charity for older people Age Scotland. The agency said more than three out of four winter deaths in the past decade had been among Scots aged 75 and over.
Virulent strains of winter flu have been previously blamed for a rise in deaths after last winter saw the number of flu-linked deaths treble to 331. Although yesterday’s figures say the virus was only “directly” responsible for a small proportion of fatalities, the Scottish Government has faced a barrage of criticism over a shortage of new “enhanced” flu vaccines, which means only over-75s will receive the advanced formula. Those under 75 will receive less potent jabs. It also emerged yesterday just 46 per cent of health staff across Scotland are immunised against flu.
Age Scotland’s head of policy and communications Adam Stachura said: “These figures are staggering and a real shock to the system.
“The large increase in deaths due to flu and pneumonia should be setting alarm bells ringing. We know that during winter months the homes of many older people are insufficiently heated, as a result of high fuel costs and poor heating systems, and can lead to a greater risk of ill health and even death.”
The 23,137 deaths recorded between December last year and March marked a rise of more than 3,000 on the previous year and was the largest number since the 23,379 deaths registered in 1999/2000, according to figures from National Records of Scotland (NRS). Part of the rise is down to the demographics of an ageing population.
The so called ‘Beast from the East’ in March marked the height of last season’s cold snap, although most deaths actually occurred in December. Last winter saw the highest rates of flu-like illness in Scotland for seven years, although this was consistent with patterns seen across Europe and the United States.
The Scottish Government says it is providing free vaccinations to all eligible adults and children, including all over-65s and primary school children, while the new vaccine will be on offer for over-75s. Ministers have also provided NHS boards with an extra £10 million to support winter resilience planning,
Chief medical officer Dr Catherine Calderwood said: “It is likely that flu was a significant factor in many deaths, particularly among older people and those with long-term conditions. “Flu vaccines are available free to all eligible adults, including everybody aged 65 and older, and protects against a number of different flu strains. Vaccination remains our best defence against flu and I urge people to take up the offer of a free vaccine.”
Professor Derek Bell OBE, president of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, said: “Last winter was one of the harshest for some time, maybe a decade. We know that an excess of deaths were reported last winter compared to the seasonal average, in part related to influenza and other respiratory infections.”
Political opponents said the recent winter crises have been predicted. Tory health spokesman Miles Briggs said: “The SNP is denying over-65s the most effective flu vaccine, which could lead to more elderly people having more incidence and more complications due to flu.”
Many private pharmacies across Scotland have run out of the winter flu vaccine for the 65-74 age range and could be waiting more a month for supplies.
And a number of NHS GP surgeries are suffering a shortage of the quadrivalent inactivated flu jab (QIV) – aimed at people aged 16 to 64 at risk from conditions such as diabetes, heart conditions or pregnancy – and will not be re-stocked until the end of this month.
An official confirmed last night that supplies of the trivalent flu jab for people aged between 65 and 75 will not be back in stock until 14-19 November.
The Scottish Government said the shortages were due to higher demand than anticipated.
Around 560,000 Scots in this age range have already missed out on an advanced flu vaccine, known as the trivalent inactivated Fluad, available to patients aged over 65 years in England and Wales due to procurement issues by NHS Scotland.
A Community Pharmacy Scotland spokeswoman said: “It is anticipated supplies for the 65-74 age range will be available again around the 14-19 of next month, but some pharmacies might have a different arrangement with suppliers.”
Commenting on the situation at NHS GP surgeries, a spokeswoman for NHS National Services Scotland (NHS NSS) said: “There is no shortage or delay in provision of supplies of the trivalent flu vaccine (TIV) to GP practices for the 65-74 year age group.
“Community pharmacies have their own arrangements in place with suppliers. NHS NSS do not procure vaccines centrally for community pharmacies.
“The vaccine for which there is extra demand is quadrivalent inactivated flu vaccine (QIV).
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Some GP practices have experienced higher early demand from patients than they anticipated based on last year’s numbers.
“We are working with NHS National Procurement to source additional vaccine.”