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For the past two years, thoughts of vaccinations have been all about protecting against Covid.

As the days get darker and colder, the Government is bringing the influenza vaccination into the spotlight.

At the start of this month it swung into action, making 2million flu vaccines available and widening eligibility for people to get vaccinated for free.

Health Minister Andrew Little said New Zealand usually used about 1.4million flu vaccines but with the Covid-19 Omicron wave still working its way through the country, the most vulnerable needed to be protected from getting the flu as well.

The flu shot is already free for everyone over the age of 65, pregnant women and those at risk of becoming seriously ill because of other underlying conditions.

“This winter, on the advice of doctors, we are widening eligibility to include Maori and Pacific people aged 55 and over, which means an extra 39,000 people can have the vaccine for free,” Mr Little said.

With the country closed to the rest of the world for two years, the nation had been largely free of colds and flu, he said.

“That’s changing, though, with our borders opening, and I encourage everyone especially the most vulnerable

“In an ordinary year, flu kills more than 500 New Zealanders. And this is no ordinary year,” he said.

WellSouth director of nursing Wendy Findlay said the flu could be very nasty and the vaccine was excellent protection to keep people and their whanau safe.

It was especially important to get the flu vaccine this year because, with the borders closed over the past two winters, there had been very little if any flu in New Zealand .

“That potentially means we may have a lower immunity to the virus.”

The vaccine was funded for people over 65, Maori and Pasifika over 55, pregnant women, children aged 4 years old or under who had been admitted to hospital for respiratory illness or had a history of significant respiratory illness and people under 65years old with some medical conditions.

The influenza vaccine was safe, and it was important for keeping people healthy and well and protecting vulnerable whanau, Ms Findlay said.

“In rare cases, there can be side effects of the flu vaccine, but there is far greater risks of serious illness and, in some cases death, associated with getting the flu.”

It was safe to get the flu vaccine alongside other vaccines, including Covid (Pfizer and AstraZeneca), MMR and routine childhood vaccines.