04 / 12 / 2014 9am
Why carers must be flu fighters too by Julia Ellis
When my daughters were small and my husband’s job involved lots of overseas travel, I used to worry about how I’d cope if I was taken ill and found myself unable to look after them. How would I cope with two young children if a dose of the flu knocked me for six and my husband was thousands of miles away? And although my mum would have been desperate to come over to help, having asthma and diabetes meant her own health wasn’t very good and I would have wanted her to stay well away.
Now that my daughters have grown up and my husband’s jet setting days are over, my worries have moved on to pastures new. With hindsight, I guess that if I had got the flu while my husband was away, one of my friends would have rallied round to help until he returned.
But for unpaid carers – people who look after someone who can’t get by without their help – the fear of becoming too ill to care can be a permanent source of anxiety. As for friends and family stepping in to help, the complexities of caring (and the potential loss of dignity for the person they care for) means that this is rarely an option. Healthcare staff apart, how people of us would feel confident in looking after our grandchild if they had disabilities demanding round-the-clock care or our friend’s six-foot-six husband who’d been immobilised by a stroke? And what about those caring for someone with a serious mental health condition? Little wonder so many carers say that they ‘can’t afford to be ill’.
Which brings me to the overwhelming argument in favour of all unpaid carers being offered a free flu vaccination. If it’s really important to vaccinate healthcare staff then, come September, shouldn’t every GP practice in the country invite carers along to their flu clinics and make them as flu-proof as the NHS workforce? And if it’s easier for carers to get vaccinated at their local community pharmacy, then why not make free flu jabs for carers available in all pharmacies rather than just a few, as they are at present?
As far as carers being eligible for a free flu jab’s concerned, they’ve been entitled to one for quite some time now. In fact, every year, Public Health England sends out a letter to GP practices confirming which of their patients should be vaccinated and carers are definitely on that list. So why are so few carers being vaccinated or under the impression they have to go and buy one privately?
A significant factor is that carers themselves don’t always identify with the label ‘carer’. That’s why leaflets and posters in GP practice waiting rooms offering ‘free flu jabs for carers’ may not do the trick. This is why we’re particularly excited about our new partnership with the fabulous flu fighter team at NHS Employers which is asking frontline healthcare staff to take the flu fighter message to carers and signpost them to support.
We know from talking to carers that it’s often a few words from a healthcare worker (community nurses in particular) which made them realise and accept they were a carer and think about getting some help. Some carers even describe it as a ‘light-bulb moment’. With the help of a few resources, NHS staff now have a quick and simple way to bring carers on board in the fight against the flu and make a real difference to the seven million people who provide even more care than the NHS.
Julia Ellis is development manager for primary care and community reach at Carers Trust, the UK’s largest charity for unpaid carers.