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Albania: a New Study Offers Further Proof That the COVID-19 Vaccine Booster is Vital for Health Workers

A new study in Albania brings fresh evidence that the COVID-19 vaccine booster provides excellent protection against SARS-CoV-2 infection in health-care workers.

The study was conducted by the Albanian Institute of Public Health, the Southeast European Center for Surveillance and Control of Infectious Diseases, the WHO Regional Office for Europe, and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with support from the Task Force for Global Health, and published this week in Open Forum Infectious Diseases. It found that health workers who received a COVID-19 booster during the Omicron wave were 88% less likely to become ill with COVID-19 than unvaccinated health workers.

Conducted among nearly 1500 health workers in 3 hospitals from January to May 2022 (a period when Omicron circulated widely in Albania), the study provides real-world evidence on the COVID-19 vaccine booster’s effectiveness – evidence that has been lacking in low- and middle-income countries worldwide, including in the WHO European Region.

“With COVID-19 infections on the rise again in Albania and globally, the study’s findings are an important reminder that vaccines remain the best way to protect against COVID-19,” said Silvia Bino, the study’s senior author and Head of the Infectious Disease Control Department of Albania’s Institute of Public Health.

“We encourage all health workers as well as other vulnerable populations to come forward and accept offers of the COVID-19 vaccine and the influenza vaccine this autumn and winter. By staying up to date with COVID-19 vaccines and getting the seasonal influenza vaccine, vulnerable populations can considerably reduce their risk of falling ill or being hospitalized from COVID-19 and influenza,” added Bino.

COVID-19 and seasonal influenza vaccine uptake is critical

Bino’s call comes at a time when COVID-19 vaccine booster uptake remains low in Albania and other countries in the Balkans and across the WHO European Region, which covers 53 countries in Europe and central Asia.

WHO recommends that front-line health workers receive a COVID-19 booster 12 months after the last. In addition, WHO recommends that other high-priority groups – including older people and people with underlying medical conditions – receive a COVID-19 booster 6 or 12 months after their previous COVID-19 vaccine dose, depending on age or chronic conditions and in line with local recommendations.

As of September 2023, only 20% of Albania’s health workers were up to date with their COVID-19 vaccination and most of those booster doses had been received well over a year ago. This low booster dose uptake has occurred despite the Albanian Ministry of Health and Social Protection’s recommendations that all health workers receive a COVID-19 vaccine booster in 2023. In contrast, primary vaccine series uptake was high (83%) among health workers.

“Improving the COVID-19 vaccine booster and influenza vaccine uptake among health workers is not only critical for health workers and their patients’ health. It also helps to ensure a well-functioning and strong health system that can better withstand increased pressure this autumn and winter, and ultimately, better care for people whose health is on the line,” said Albana Fico, head of the University Hospital Centre in Tirana, who worked on the study.

“While the study measured the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine booster against symptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection, and not more severe outcomes, other studies have consistently found that COVID-19 booster doses save lives and protect against severe disease,” said Iris Finci, epidemiologist at WHO/Europe and lead author of the study.

The study’s findings support the Albanian Ministry of Health and Social Protection’s recommendation that all health workers should receive a COVID-19 booster dose every 12 months.

Albania has already started its COVID-19 vaccine booster campaign this autumn. Health workers and other vulnerable groups can get their influenza vaccine as of 15 October.

“The health authorities in Albania have been doing a great job over the years boosting influenza vaccine uptake among vulnerable populations. This year, WHO in Albania will continue to support their efforts to protect the most vulnerable against both COVID-19 and influenza,” said Geraldine McWeeney, WHO Representative in Albania.

Albania is part of a WHO/Europe and European Union joint project on strengthening health systems resilience in the western Balkans, which includes support for strengthening both COVID-19 vaccination uptake and national immunization programmes.

Boosting vaccination uptake across the WHO European Region as a whole

Across the WHO European Region, COVID-19 continues to cause infections, hospitalizations and deaths, and new variants continue to circulate.

It is also likely that influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and COVID-19 will circulate at the same time again this autumn and winter, which could lead to increased risk of infections and severe disease among vulnerable populations, and could put more pressure on health services.

Moreover, the uptake of recent COVID-19 vaccine booster doses and the influenza vaccine among vulnerable populations varies considerably across the Region, and remains concerningly low in many countries.

To help boost vaccination uptake against COVID-19 and influenza, on 9 October 2023, during the European Flu Awareness Week, WHO/Europe launched a Region-wide campaign titled “Keeping safe from COVID-19, influenza, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) this autumn and winter. Protecting lives. Strengthening health systems”.

Dr Marc-Alain Widdowson, who leads the High-threat Pathogen team and the Surveillance and Laboratory pillar of the COVID-19 Incident Support Management Team at WHO/Europe, emphasized, “Our message is simple: Don’t leave your health to chance. If you’re a health worker, older person, pregnant, or suffering from underlying health conditions, the best thing you can do to protect your health is to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and influenza. It’s as simple as that, and a message worth repeating time and time again.”

Source : World Health Organization