(Vienna, 01 December 2021) The main theme of Austrian Vaccination Day 2022 will once again be the Coronavirus. This time the focus is on the new vaccines, current recommendations for their use and the prevailing state of the pandemic. MedUni Vienna, the Austrian Medical Association (ÖÄK), the Austrian Chamber of Pharmacists and Österreichische Akademie der Ärzte GmbH (Austrian Academy of Physicians) will hold it jointly as a hybrid conference on 22 January 2022 in the Medical University of Vienna's Van Swieten Hall and as a live stream from 8am to 5pm (registration at www.impftag.at).
Under the title "One year of Coronavirus vaccinations - is the pandemic under control?", a number of leading experts under the medical and scientific chair of Ursula Wiedermann-Schmidt, Head of MedUni Vienna's Center for Pathophysiology, Infectiology and Immunology, will explore all aspects of this topic on 22 January. The current recommendations from the National Vaccination Committee will also be explained and legal aspects of off-label vaccinations discussed. Another important question is how to explain the vaccine scepticism prevailing in sections of the population and how vaccine uptake can be increased - short of enforcing compulsory vaccination.
At a virtual press conference held today, Wednesday, 1 December 2021, Ursula Wiedermann-Schmidt, Rudolf Schmitzberger, Head of the Vaccination Unit of the Austrian Medical Association, and Gerhard Kobinger, member of the praesidium of the Austrian Chamber of Pharmacists, stressed that the pandemic is still far from being under control. Because of its ability to mutate, the virus is "crafty" and rigorous measures are required to keep it at bay. This has not happened so far.
The approval of vaccines for children aged 5 and above increases the proportion of the population that can be immunised. According to Wiedermann-Schmidt, this has another important advantage over and above protecting children from illness and reducing the psychological stress caused by the many lockdowns: "Vaccinated children are less likely to transmit the virus and so do not carry take the infection home, which is a great relief, especially for families which include people with underlying conditions that make them particularly vulnerable." She is also pinning her hopes on new groups of vaccines currently awaiting marketing authorisation. "The new protein vaccines are suitable for those for whom mRNA vaccines are contraindicated. This expands our ability to immunise even more people, who could not previously be vaccinated for medical reasons." Nevertheless, the general call is not to wait for the new vaccines before vaccinating, because we need to prevent the further spread of the virus now and cannot wait for the entire forest to burn down before we put out the fire."
Appeal to take up vaccinations
Booster vaccinations are an important tool for maintaining acquired immunity and preventing potential breakthrough infections. "We need as many people as possible to be vaccinated to smash this wave and contain the pandemic," says Wiedermann-Schmidt. "To do that, we need to close a lot of vaccination gaps and keep immunity high among those already vaccinated." Observations show that booster vaccinations provide longer immunity than after the two initial jabs. "The lower the vaccination coverage, the greater the probability of the virus mutating and continuing to circulate among the population. Compared to last year, we are now in the fortunate position of having sufficient quantities of suitable vaccines. However, it is now important for the public to take up the offer."
Closing vaccination gaps for children
Rudolf Schmitzberger, who is a paediatrician and Head of the Vaccination Unit of the Austrian Medical Association (ÖÄK), stressed that in addition to providing COVID-19 vaccinations for children, it is also important to close existing immunisation gaps - especially vaccinations for measles, pneumococcal infections, diphtheria, whooping cough and meningococcal infections and also for HPV, where vaccination coverage has fallen dramatically: "For example, around 30,000 children in Austria between the ages of six and nine are not adequately protected against measles." In the case of the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccination, the second vaccination, which is essential for protection, should be taken up by the end of child's first year as part of the free vaccination programme. "In many cases, people simply forget to go for this second part of the vaccination. However, measles is not a harmless childhood disease and can lead to inflammation of the middle ear or lungs and even encephalitis."
People also underestimate the importance of pneumococcal vaccination. Worldwide, pneumococci cause about 1.5 million deaths each year. Most potentially life-threatening pneumococcal diseases occur in children under the age of five - here again Austria's free vaccination programme provides immunisation with three partial vaccinations up to the age of one. These also help to reduce the risk of painful middle ear infections. According to the ÖÄK vaccination expert, there was a general decline in the uptake of childhood vaccinations in 2020 - especially due to Covid-19-related school closures and the resulting reduction in the number of school vaccinations. However, it would be quite easy to close the vaccination gaps even during the pandemic: "GP surgeries are open and safe - even during the pandemic. I can only appeal to the public not to forget important preventive or mother-child passport check-ups, and especially not all the important vaccinations!"
Do not forget the flu jab
Now is the ideal time to get vaccinated against flu. Unfortunately, however, very few people do this in Austria (2020/21: 21.3%, 2019/2020: 8.5%). Exposed groups of people in particular are urged to have the flu jab in order to protect themselves against severe courses of the disease. The people affected are precisely those who also have an increased risk of severe COVID-19. The risk groups for both influenza and COVID are people over the age of 60, especially the very elderly and those with pre-existing conditions. Flu also poses a risk of serious illness for babies and young children. "The risk of severe illness is preventable for both COVID-19 and flu. In both cases, we need high vaccination coverage. High influenza vaccination coverage could help to prevent severe courses of the disease and hospitalisations during the flu season", explains Gerhard Kobinger, member of the praesidium of the Austrian Chamber of Pharmacists. "Especially during the winter months when SARS-CoV-2 and influenza virus strains are circulating, we must do everything in our power to avoid putting further strain on the healthcare system and to prevent bottlenecks in intensive care units."
Kobinger emphasises the importance of providing factual information about the effects and side-effects of the respective vaccination as well as expert advice in pharmacies. "For one thing, we have to allay people's fears of vaccine side-effects and emphasise the benefits of vaccination. At the end of the day, the flu jab, like the Coronavirus vaccine, not only provides personal protection but also helps slow and contain the spread of the virus. Moreover, vaccinated people not only protect themselves but also those around them who cannot be vaccinated for whatever reason," said Kobinger.
Catch up on booster vaccinations
Kobinger also calls on all adults to catch up as quickly as possible with any recommended vaccinations that were not carried out due to the pandemic, for example. These include vaccinations against pneumococci, TBE, diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, polio and hepatitis. Without the necessary booster jabs, vaccine protection is lost, and this can result in terrible collateral damage. "Here again, it is extremely important to encourage people to get vaccinated, allay their fears, debunk fake news and show them the benefits of vaccination. The pharmacists will be happy to provide information about this on an individual basis. All you need to do is come to the pharmacy with your vaccination certificate," recommends the pharmacist.
Austrian Vaccination Day 2022: Saturday, 22 January 2022. "One year of Coronavirus vaccinations - is the pandemic under control?" hybrid conference and specialist exhibition from 8am until 5pm in the Van Swieten Hall at MedUni Vienna (Van-Swieten-Gasse 1a, 1090 Vienna). Austrian Vaccination Day is the largest landmark vaccination event for doctors and pharmacists and is organised by Österreichische Akademie der Ärzte GmbH in collaboration with MedUni Vienna, the Austrian Medical Association and the Austrian Chamber of Pharmacists. For further information, the programme or to register: www.impftag.at.