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Community immunity

McKesson Europe Director of Public Affairs, Ronan Brett, explains how pharmacists can help bring coronavirus under control.

Vaccinations are a highly effective way of protecting us from infectious illness and have been responsible for virtually eradicating some truly awful diseases such as smallpox, polio and tetanus.  As such an integral part of childhood and foreign travel, we may have taken them a little for granted. We may not have really understood what they did or the implications if we didn’t have them.

But we certainly know a lot more now!  

To fight the COVID-19 pandemic, a truly unprecedented global vaccination program is taking place. And with daily updates on regulator-approved vaccines, administration rates and how we achieve the elusive ‘herd immunity’, few people can now say they don’t understand how vaccines work and their benefits.

The initial plan to vaccinate as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, relied in many countries on large vaccination centers — especially because we were working with fairly rigid storage requirements. But for those people who live rurally, find travel difficult, for those who are hesitant, elderly or vulnerable, vaccination in their local community — ideally by someone they know and trust — is the only answer. And in each community, the most accessible health care professional is the pharmacist; more than two-thirds of Europeans can access a pharmacy within five minutes [1]. Many of the most vulnerable and hard to reach groups already have a relationship with a local pharmacist. Those with chronic disease pay regular trips to the pharmacy, it is a trusted environment staffed by trusted healthcare professionals. Pharmacists can play an important role in disease prevention by promoting and administering immunization, so why aren’t more countries deploying community pharmacy in the war on COVID-19?

Pharmacies in some European countries already have a track record of delivering flu vaccinations and in England alone, 2.6 million doses were administered over last winter (20/21) [2]. It is likely that we will be re-vaccinating against coronavirus year on year and as the coronavirus vaccine program moves from essential to routine healthcare, pharmacies will be the closest, most accessible and most convenient place for patients to get their booster dose in the vicinity of their homes.   

As European health systems try to recover from pandemic-enforced pressure and resulting backlogs, it makes absolute sense for community pharmacies to relieve some of the burden on doctors and hospitals, yet there seems to be a reluctance to commit resources to this approach. Ironically, some pharmacists have either been running temporary vaccination centers or employed to vaccinate in them but are not allowed to vaccinate in pharmacies due to certain country national restrictions!  

Pharmacists have a unique set of skills but we are at risk of undervaluing them and their key public health role.  This ability to make a real difference to public health is significant and well-proven in many countries where pharmacists’ clinical role has expanded substantially beyond their core competence in dispensing medicines and health advice. Services such as smoking cessation, screening and testing, minor ailments services, medicines optimization — even phlebotomy clinics — are delivered very successfully in some European pharmacies. But not all.  As we face increased pressure on healthcare budgets, pharmacists and their teams can really deliver better value healthcare outcomes. And never will this be more critical than as we emerge from the pandemic.

Community pharmacy premises should be considered as vaccination hubs — for COVID-19, flu, travel, HPV — whatever service the community needs. It makes financial sense because resources can be used more effectively across healthcare settings. It makes sense to the patient. It makes the best use of pharmacists’ clinical skills and training.  

So, let us recognise the true potential of this most modest of professions, of which I am one, and let us equip an army of European pharmacy vaccinators to provide this vital public health intervention.

[1] Source: The European Files
[2] Sourse: PSNC

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