Covid-19, flu, RSV: Vaccines safeguard against 'tripledemic', UAE expert says

The WHO has classified JN.1, a new Covid-19 strain, as a 'variant of interest' but said it did not pose much threat to public health

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Ashwani Kumar

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Published: Wed 20 Dec 2023, 8:31 AM

Last updated: Wed 20 Dec 2023, 2:28 PM

As winter sets in, the looming threat of a tripledemic is ever-present. A tripledemic refers to the simultaneous surge in the cases of Covid-19, flu, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), especially during winter.

Vaccination programmes are an effective way to protect against viruses, slow the spread of disease and prevent severe cases, the country’s leading infectious diseases consultant said.

Dr Nawal Al Kaabi, one of the key faces of UAE’s Covid-19 response, told Khaleej Times that protection against the tripledemic should be a continuous endeavour rather than a seasonal effort.

“When it comes to healthcare, there is always more to be done. The threat of the three infections constituting the pandemic is ever present and safeguarding public health against emerging variants is a continuous year-round process. To date, several Covid-19 variants have been declared variants of concern by the World Health Organisation (and national public health agencies) as they exhibit substantially altered immune escape, warranting close monitoring,” said Dr Al Kaabi, senior consultant at Hayat Biotech – UAE’s biotechnology leader and a joint venture between G42 and Sinopharm.

Dr Nawal Al Kaabi
Dr Nawal Al Kaabi

“As new variants continue to emerge, the tripledemic calls for constant vigilance on our part. I urge healthcare organisations across the world to maintain continuous monitoring and have in place set protocols to equip themselves against the potential seasonal surge,” noted Dr Al Kaabi, who was the UAE’s principal investigator of the phase 3 clinical trials of the Covid-19 vaccine.

The WHO has classified JN.1, a new Covid-19 strain, as a “variant of interest” but said it did not pose much threat to public health. The UN agency noted that current vaccines protect against severe disease and death from JN.1 and other circulating variants of the Covid-19 virus.

Vaccination ‘paramount importance’

Dr Al Kaabi pointed out that regardless of age and health, the tripledemic stands to affect communities across the world making sustainable healthcare solutions crucial.

“While adopting daily habits such as covering your mouth and nose while sneezing, washing your hands, and wearing a mask as much as possible is advisable, the importance of vaccination programmes recommended by health authorities is of paramount importance in slowing the spread of disease and preventing severe cases.”

Last year, the tripledemic infected millions and overwhelmed hospital systems over the four-month peak span of these viruses. It is estimated that vaccines have prevented 6 million deaths from vaccine-preventable diseases annually.

“Increasing vaccine uptake stands to help in preventing the transmission of respiratory illnesses. This ultimately culminates in fewer clinic visits and hospital admissions thereby reducing the overall burden on the healthcare system.”

Dr Al Kaabi stressed the importance of raising physician awareness as a first step in vaccination.

“We believe that doctor-centred vaccine incentive programmes can achieve more success in preventing respiratory tract infections. A considerable stress must be placed on educating patients on the benefits of vaccination outweighing the perceived risks and special attention should be given to more vulnerable groups such as older individuals, pregnant women, and those with compromised immune systems.”

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According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the flu vaccination prevents illnesses, medical visits, hospitalisations, and deaths. In the case of pregnant women, vaccinating against the flu has been shown to help protect the baby from flu infection for several months after birth, before the baby can be vaccinated.

“It is imperative to note that flu viruses are constantly changing, flu vaccines may be updated from one season to the next to protect against new variants. Additionally, individual protection from a flu vaccine declines over time making early vaccination a necessity for the best protection,” said Dr Al Kaabi.

Pandemic far from over

Dr Al Kaabi noted that as new variants of Covid-19 emerge, adhering to the recommended booster shot regimen is pivotal to evading infection.

“The UAE has seen the launch of several campaigns to raise awareness about the importance of preventative care and vaccinations and the vital role they play in improving community health.”

This year, the ‘National Seasonal Influenza Awareness Campaign’ and the ‘Stop the Spread’ programmes, were launched.

Dr Al Kaabi said that Hayat Biotech is dedicated to promoting public health and advocating for widespread vaccination.

“Our mission is to protect the community by reinforcing the importance of vaccinations. By ensuring everyone is immunised, we contribute to a healthier and safer society for all.”

She urged for a “collective commitment” to vaccination against the tripledemic to empower communities and reduce healthcare burden.

“It is the responsibility of healthcare leaders and organisations to support governments to reduce the stigma around vaccination and vaccine hesitation should be addressed by physicians. Protection starts at home – which is why it’s important for parents to promote good hand hygiene practices at home.”

Dr Al Kaabi reiterated the need to spread the word on the importance of regular vaccination as recommended by health authorities against tripledemic diseases, specifically for the vulnerable population.

“The pandemic is far from over, with new variants cropping up and especially with the new school year starting, the onus on boosting immunity and promoting hand hygiene is greater than ever. We live in a very dynamic healthcare landscape and with novel pandemics likely to grow more frequent in the future – science, innovation, and collaboration must come together to pave the way for a healthier tomorrow.”

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