The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Tuesday said COVID-19 vaccines saved at least 1.4 million lives in Europe.
Delivering his first message of the new year, Regional Director, WHO European region, Dr Hans Kluge, stressed that without vaccines, the death toll on the continent “could have been around four million, possibly even higher.
“More than 2.5 million COVID-19 deaths, and 277 million confirmed cases, were reported in the vast WHO European Region, which comprised 53 countries stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.
“Analysis of 34 countries showed that most people whose lives were saved by vaccines, 90 per cent, were over 60.”
Kluge said the vaccines reduced deaths by 57 per cent in the period between their rollout in December 2020 through March 2023, with the first booster doses alone saving an estimated 700,000 lives.
“Today, there are 1.4 million people in our region – most of them elderly – who are around to enjoy life with their loved ones because they took the vital decision to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
“This is the power of vaccines. The evidence is irrefutable,” Kluge said, speaking from Copenhagen.
He added that COVID-19 rates in Europe remained elevated but were decreasing.
“WHO recommends that people at highest risk of the disease should continue to be re-vaccinated six to 12 months after their most recent dose.
“This category includes older persons, frontline health workers, pregnant women, and people who are immunocompromised or have significant chronic medical conditions,” he said.
Meanwhile, WHO is currently seeing widespread circulation of respiratory viruses like influenza, Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) and measles in the European region.
RSV rates peaked before the new year and are now declining, Kluge reported, and influenza rates are rapidly rising, with a likely surge expected over the coming weeks.
There has been a nearly 60 per cent increase in reported hospitalisations for the flu over the past two weeks and a 21 per cent increase in ICU admissions, compared to the previous two weeks.
Flu cases increased four-fold between November and December, with 38 countries reporting the start of the seasonal influenza epidemic.
Those most affected by severe disease are people aged 65 and older and the very young.
“We are concerned about reports of localised pressures on hospitals and overcrowding in emergency rooms, due to a confluence of circulating respiratory viruses,” he said.
Kluge stressed that although COVID-19 infections rates were broadly decreasing across Europe, the situation could rapidly change in the face of the new variant of interest, JN.1, now the most common variant reported globally.
“Though there’s no current evidence to suggest the JN.1 variant is more severe, the unpredictable nature of this virus shows how vital it is that countries continue to monitor for any new variants.
“As many countries have reduced or stopped reporting COVID-19 data to WHO, Kluge underscored the need for continued surveillance as the disease is here to stay.
“We know how to keep ourselves and others safe, whether from COVID-19 or other respiratory infections,” he said.
He noted that health was slipping from the political agenda, and voiced deep concern over the failure to address the ticking time-bomb facing the health and care workforce.
“As health systems come under strain, we are reminded that we may be unprepared for anything out-of-the-ordinary, such as the emergence of a new, more severe COVID-19 variant or a yet unknown pathogen,” he warned.
He urged leaders to show demonstrable support for health workers.