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Think getting the regular flu shot that's free in Germany will keep you from getting sick? Think again. There's a better one out there that experts are recommending – but it'll cost you.
The flu is going around in Germany. If you work in a large office or at a school, chances are that half your colleagues are out sick. The Robert Koch Institute, the German government's central scientific institution in the field of biomedicine, registered 24,000 cases of the flu in the third week of February. 136 patients have already died as a result of influenza this year.
To protect themselves, many people decide to get a flu shot. The vaccination is covered by all health insurers in Germany. Doctors recommend it especially for the elderly, pregnant women and the chronically ill. Even the European Commission encourages people to get immunized.
"I call on all European Union citizens to get vaccinations for themselves and their children," EU Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukatis told German daily newspaper Welt in February.
But German experts are saying that the regular flu shot covered by health insurers doesn't protect people effectively.
The trivalent flu vaccine that patients get for free protects against three influenza viruses that are expected to circulate during flu season: two A-strains and one B-strain. But since last December, another B-strain that is not covered with this vaccine has been going around.
"The trivalent vaccine is missing an important influenza strain that is responsible for many cases of the flu, some of them severe," Eugen Brysch, head of the German Foundation for the Protection of Patients, told newspapers from the German Newsroom Network on Wednesday.
Experts estimate that half the flu cases so far this season have been caused by an influenza-B-virus. Only the quadrivalent vaccine protects people from this strain. The problem: the quadrivalent flu shot is not covered by most German health insurers, since it's more expensive. You'd have to pay roughly 13 euros extra; in many areas, patients will even have to pick up the vaccine from a pharmacy themselves.
While many would likely be willing to go the extra mile to avoid fever, headaches and a runny nose, many German doctors don't inform their patients of this extra option.
A change might come – in April
In November 2017, the Robert Koch Institute's Standing Committee on Vaccination (STIKO) recommended the quadrivalent vaccine as the way to go. In January 2018, the committee making decisions for all German health insurers announced they would look into the issue. But the group legally has three months to make a decision.
Brysch says that time is much too late for ill and elderly patients that are at a high flu risk now. His foundation is calling for German lawmakers to speed up the process in cases of emergency like this.
If the regulations stay in place without a change, the health insurers' decision might not come before April. By then, flu season is basically over.