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Doctors say it's not too late to get the flu shot

While the vaccination rate is lower than in previous years, experts believe that there are other factors behind the recent spike in flu inflections.

The flu strain circulating among the Portuguese population may be behind the excess mortality in recent weeks, but it's still too early to say whether or not it's more serious than previous outbreaks.

Vaccination rates currently stand at 73.4% for the over-65s, almost 10 p.p. below the final figures for last year's season (83.2%) and below the 75% target set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). However, it is above almost all pre-pandemic years.

According to a study by the Portuguese Society of Pneumology published in the scientific journal Pulmonology only in 2019/20 was this threshold exceeded.

For epidemiologist Manuel Carmo Gomes, vaccination rates “aren't low”, but they “could be higher” since “this would prevent many people from rushing to hospitals”.

He added: “at the very least, serious illness is less likely if people get vaccinated.”

Comparing the end of 2023 with the end of 2022, the vaccination rate among the over-80s is four percentage points lower (76% compared to 80$ in 2022) and five p.p. lower than the previous season (72% compared to 77% in 2022).

Regarding healthcare workers with direct contact with patients, the difference in vaccination rates is almost 10 p.p. (43.9% this year, compared to 52.6% in 2022/23).

Even so, experts believe that the lower vaccination coverage is a “very simplistic explanation” for the higher number of casualties this flu season.

Since 24 December, Portugal has seen more than 1,700 excess deaths in the space of 16 days. In the rest of 2023, only nine were recorded. Last week, from 1 to 7 January, was the deadliest in almost three years.

According to experts, this increase in mortality started earlier and is more noticeable in the north than in the Lisbon and the Tagus Valley region. However, the vaccination coverage is also better in the north than in the centre and south of the country.

"The fact that vaccination coverage is a few percentage points below what we would like doesn't seem to be the explanation for this excess mortality. There are probably other explanations, such as the very cold days, which are more intense in the north than in the south," he concludes.

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