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Austrian Vaccination Day 2021 characterised by COVID-19

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(Vienna, 13 January 2020) In 2021, Austrian Vaccination Day is characterised by the coronavirus and the roll-out of coronavirus vaccinations in Austria, as well as the associated challenges. In collaboration with MedUni Vienna, the Austrian Medical Association (ÖÄK), Austrian Chamber of Pharmacists and Österreichische Akademie der Ärzte GmbH, it will be held on 23 January 2021 as a virtual event in the Van Swieten Hall of the Medical University of Vienna and will be live streamed between 8:00 and 17:00 hrs (to register go to: www.impftag.at).

Under the title of "Covid vaccines and their challenges: hoped for – dreaded – available" numerous leading experts will talk about all aspects of this topic on 23 January, under the medical-scientific chairmanship of Ursula Wiedermann-Schmidt, Head of MedUni Vienna's Center for Pathophysiology, Infectiology and Immunology. At a virtual press conference held today (Wednesday, 13 January 2021) Wiedermann-Schmidt, Rudolf Schmitzberger, Head of the ÖÄK Vaccination Unit and Gerhard Kobinger, member of the Executive Committee of the Austrian Chamber of Pharmacists, stressed that the level of protection of the Austrian population and immunisation against Covid-19 will be higher if greater vaccination coverage is achieved and appealed for extensive uptake of the vaccine:"We strive for everyone to get vaccinated."

As Wiedermann-Schmidt emphasises, people who are at risk can also be vaccinated: "For example, the approvals also cover HIV and cancer patients. Even allergy sufferers can be vaccinated. Additional safety measures will be in place for anyone who has previously had an allergic reaction to a vaccination." The vaccines are not currently approved for pregnant women, since this group was not included in the preliminary studies and there is not yet any data available. Children under the age of 16 are likewise currently excluded from the vaccination programme. However, this could change over the course of 2021 with the approval of additional vaccines.

The vaccines that are currently being used are so-called mRNA vaccines. mRNA vaccines operate on a novel principle, whereby it is not the viral antigen that is injected but the building instructions for it. The mRNA (short for messenger RNA) is incorporated into the body of the vaccinated person. The cell then manufactures the required protein itself, exactly according to the molecular "instructions for use" – the body itself then produces what it requires for immunisation. In the case of SARS-CoV-2, these are the spike proteins of the virus. "The process of adopting the blueprint is very quick and takes place on the surface of the cells," explains Wiedermann-Schmidt, "at no point does the mRNA enter directly into the cell nucleus and so we are 100% certain that it never enters the human genome. The immune response is only ever directed at the foreign substance, in this case the virus." In future there will also be vaccines that use adenoviruses to transport mRNA into the cells and then operate along more or less the same lines.

from left: Moderator Simon Huber, Rudolf Schmitzberger (Austrian Medical Association), Ursula Wiedermann-Schmidt (MedUni Vienna), Gerhard Kobinger (Austrian Chamber of Pharmacists)

Wiedermann-Schmidt describes the vaccination reactions as "classic". These range from reddening and swelling at the vaccination site through to systemic reactions, such as headache or fever, which can be expected especially after the second dose. "However, these reactions only last about one or two days and should be seen as a positive sign, since they indicate that an immune response is being developed against the virus. And, in any case, these minor problems can easily be alleviated with paracetamol."

Schmitzberger: We must all pull together
 In view of the prevailing public uncertainty about the new vaccination technology, education and information about the vaccination programme are more important than ever, emphasises Rudolf Schmitzberger, Head of the Austrian Medical Association's Vaccination Unit. "The ÖÄK is working tirelessly with a highly qualified panel of scientific experts to provide sound advice to medical professionals as well as patients. Online platforms and information media such as YouTube are also being used."

In the population at large, willingness to be vaccinated has risen sharply and is now at around 50%. Willingness to be vaccinated is particularly high among doctors, as is shown by a recent survey conducted by Vienna Medical Association: this shows that 75% would like to be vaccinated immediately. "Vaccination of General Practitioners has already started in Vorarlberg and we are starting in Vienna on Friday," reports Schmitzberger. This will be a logistical challenge, since doctors, dentists and their staff are to be vaccinated at 24 vaccination stations in the Exhibition Center within four days.

Schmitzberger thinks it is important to clarify which vaccine should be used for which setting: "We have great hopes for the second approved Moderna vaccine, which has already arrived in Austria. We are awaiting the earliest possible EU approval for the third vaccine, from AstraZeneca, which is the one most likely to be used in GP surgeries," says the vaccination expert. However, an important factor in the rollout will be the co-ordination between central acquisition and federal deployment in keeping with local circumstances in the federal states, that is to say the smooth collaboration between Federal Government and ÖÄK with maximum involvement of the federal states. "We must all pull together if we are to overcome the logistical challenge of vaccinating as many people as possible as quickly as possible. This is absolutely no room for political skirmishing," stresses Schmitzberger.

Kobinger: Coronavirus vaccination is a golden opportunity
Gerhard Kobinger, member of the Executive Committee of the Austrian Chamber of Pharmacists sees the coronavirus vaccination campaign as a golden opportunity: "Coronavirus vaccination offers us a golden opportunity to stop the spread of the virus – we must take it! Pharmacists will therefore be fully supporting the vaccination campaign. Many people have questions about this new type of vaccine and are therefore unsure whether to be vaccinated or not. We will explain the facts to people, advise them and boost their confidence in the coronavirus vaccines. Last but not least we will also do our bit to help with the challenging vaccination logistics, once the vaccine is available for everyone. Experience from the recent influenza vaccination campaign has shown us that all players must pull together in order to achieve the highest possible vaccination coverage. Finally, even those living in rural areas must be able to be vaccinated close to where they live."

Around 400,000 people a day visit one of the 1,400 pharmacies between Lake Constance and Lake Neusiedl. Pharmacists have the necessary expertise in vaccine management and can therefore support distribution to the entire population in a controlled and safe way. Aside from the coronavirus vaccination, Kobinger makes the appeal: "Please don't forget to go for your routine vaccinations! The doubling of FSME cases last year is an alarm signal and shows that we must not forget these routine protective vaccinations."

Austrian Vaccination Day 2021: Saturday, 23 January 2021. "Covid vaccines and their challenges: hoped for – dreaded – available" virtual conference and exhibition from 8:00-17:00 hrs. Austrian Vaccination Day is the largest trend-setting 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 Austrian Chamber of Pharmacists. For details, registration and programme: www.impftag.at