The take-up of the flu vaccine in Italy has steadily declined over the past five years, from 19.6 percent in the winter of 2009/2010 to 13.6 percent in 2014/2015, the ISS said, laying the blame on the persistent “false alarms” surrounding the safety of the injection.
Despite the mild autumn, the ISS said that an estimated 10,000 Italians have already taken to their beds, suffering with symptoms of “fever, chills, throat or abdominal pain” and warned that the number will increase as winter sets in, piling more pressure on the country's strained health service.
More worryingly, most of those refusing the jab are Italy’s elderly – with just 48 percent of those over 65 taking the injection to fend off the virus during the 2014/2015 winter period, compared to 63.3 percent in 2006.
Distrust over the injection was compounded late last November when Italy suspended the use of Fluad, a flu vaccine made by the Swiss pharmaceuticals giant Novartis, amid fears it may have caused three deaths.
The victims were two women aged 87 and 79, and a 68-year old man, all of whom died in southern Italy.
Within a couple of weeks, 16 more deaths were thought to be linked to the vaccine, although Europe’s drugs watchdog, the European Medicines Agency, said in early December that it found no evidence to connect Fluad with the deaths.
At that stage, four million doses of the drug had been distributed for the vaccination campaign in Italy, and it had been widely used elsewhere in the EU.
About 8,000 people in Italy die of illnesses related to the flu virus each year, especially among those with respiratory and cardiovascular problems, ISS said.
The virus also impacts the economy due to the number of sick days taken off work, ISS added.
The flu shot is recommended for those over the age of 65, as well as those suffering from chronic illnesses such as diabetes, asthma and heart disease, and is free of charge for these groups.
“This is a good time to take the injection because the influenza peak will hit in a month or two and the injection takes 15 days to take effect,” Silvestro Scotti, the president of the medical association in Naples, told La Stampa.
It is also advised that children over six months be given the jab.