Top health officials at a press conference to announce the launch of the flu vaccine campaign in Dubai on Monday. Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

Dubai: Residents across the UAE will soon be able to take their vaccines for seasonal influenza and COVID-19 from pharmacies in their neighbourhood as authorities have extended the service across the nation, it was revealed on Monday.

Pharmacies in all the emirates can start giving vaccines for influenza and COVID-19, provided they follow the regulations set by the health authorities, top officials said.

The emirate of Abu Dhabi has begun providing the vaccination service through pharmacies and this will now be extended to all the emirates, officials said at the launch of the national awareness campaign on seasonal influenza vaccine.

“In northern emirates and Dubai, it will start through, maybe by the end of the month or beginning of October,” said Dr. Hussein Abdel Rahman Al-Rand, assistant undersecretary for the public sector at the Ministry of Health and Prevention (MoHAP).

The health officials present did not elaborate on the regulations for pharmacies to be licensed to give vaccines. However, Dr Al-Rand said the regulations and guidelines are already in place.

“If they [pharmacies) fulfill the requirements, they will be licensed to give vaccines in the pharmacy,” he said.

Dr Al-Rand explained that the availability of vaccines in pharmacies will make them easily available to a larger group of residents.

“Some people are busy the whole day. So, they don’t have time to go to primary healthcare [centres] or hospitals but they can [go to a nearby] pharmacy and say I want the vaccine if it is available,” he said.

Though the pricing will be as per the market rate, he said it could vary depending on the additional services provided by the pharmacies.

Get flu, COVID shots on same day

Officials also announced that people can now avail flu shot and COVID-19 vaccine without keeping the mandatory gap of two weeks between them that was in practice earlier.

“People can take vaccines for both influenza and COVID-19 on the same day as international regulations have changed,” said Dr Badreya Al-Shehhi, head of Immunisation Department at Abu Dhabi Public Health Centre.

The move comes following the changes in international regulations. Health officials believe taking the jabs on the same day will help people avoid the vaccine fatigue so that they will not skip their flu shot after taking their mandatory COVID-19 jab.

“No contraindication has been found,” said Dr Al-Shehhi, assuring that it is safe to take both vaccines at the same time.

Though there are companies trying to develop a single vaccine to prevent both influenza and COVID-19, no data has yet been shared with the government entities for review, she said.

Decrease during pandemic

The health officials also pointed out that cases of influenza have gone up after a dramatic decrease during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“[The number of] COVID cases had totalled more than [that of] influenza in the last two years. The flu cases were dramatically less than COVID-19. [But], this year we have noticed that influenza has started rising again,” pointed out Dr Al-Shehhi.

She and Dr Al-Rand attributed the reason for the spike in flu cases to people going back to normal life after strict COVID-19 precautionary measures such as social distancing and mandatory mask at all times were relaxed.

UAE healthcare facilities had also reported a huge demand for flu vaccines during the peak of the COVID-19 cases, indicating another reason for the less prevalence of the seasonal flu cases during the pandemic.

“If any person has a cold, it is recommended to wear a mask to prevent infection,” said Dr Al-Rand. Those having a severe cold should stay away from others to prevent infection, he added.

Who should get the flu vaccine?

The health officials urged residents, especially those who are in the high risk categories, to get vaccinated against the seasonal influenza.

Dr. Laila Al-Jassmi, head of immunisation at the MoHAP’s Preventive Medicine Department, said the health authorities are targeting healthcare workers to increase their awareness about flu vaccination among healthcare workers as they are considered the ambassadors to spread awareness among the public about the importance of protecting them from influenza through vaccination.

Seasonal fly is an acute viral infection caused by one of the influenza viruses. The incidence of the disease ranges from mild to severe where its severity can increase to the extent that it can require admission to hospitals, especially for the high-risk group, Dr Al-Jassmi said in a presentation.

“Pregnant women, children under five, the elderly and those with chronic illnesses and healthcare workers fall under the target group for seasonal influenza vaccination according to the recommendations of the World Health Organisation,” she said.

Who gets it for free?

Hundreds of government and private healthcare facilities across the UAE provide the flu vaccine for residents. A quadrivalent flu vaccine that provides protection against four strains of viruses is currently available in the UAE.

Dr Shamsa Lootah, director of Public Health Services Department at Emirates Health Services, said that all healthcare workers in the government sector are given the flu vaccine free of cost.

In Abu Dhabi, the flu vaccine is provided free of charge to all residents at government hospitals, schools and colleges. MoHAP is offering the flu jab for free to Emiratis and those among high risk categories. In Dubai, the DHA is providing the vaccine at all government hospitals and primary health care centres. It is free for Emiratis and residents in the high risk groups. In private hospitals, the flu jab costs anywhere between Dh50-125, depending on the facility.

Dr. Hend Alawadhi, head of Health Promotion and Education Section at Dubai Health Authority, said the flu vaccine coverage in Dubai was “good” last year and “we are expecting more this year.”

She encouraged those who are yet to take their COVID-19 vaccine, including the boost shot, to consider taking that along with the flu vaccine.

The seasonal flu campaign supports the UAE’s strategy to provide comprehensive health coverage, and protect members of society against infectious diseases. It will run until the end of December.