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HEALTH

What you need to know about the flu vaccine in Switzerland

There has been a lot of talk lately about the coronavirus vaccine becoming available in the first half of 2021. But in the meantime, the flu season is almost here and Swiss health officials are urging the public to get the jab.

What you need to know about the flu vaccine in Switzerland
Older people should consider getting a flu shot, health officials say. Photo by AFP

When does the flu season begin and end?

Flu season typically peaks between December and February, but it can last longer. It is difficult to predict whether the coming season will be ‘light’ or ‘heavy’.

All we know is that this year, we have the unusual confluence of two illnesses — flu and coronavirus — which potentially presents a double threat for the body and healthcare system.

Can you get both diseases at the same time?

As Covid-19 is an unprecedented illness, and this is the first time that we have to deal with it and the flu simultaneously, there is no data on how likely it is to be infected with both – although doctors have certainly not excluded it.

Why do Swiss health authorities recommend the flu vaccine?

In the midst of the coronavirus outbreak we can forget that flu is also potentially a serious and sometimes fatal illness.

According to the official Swiss information platform Infovac, “the flu is the cause of a thousand hospitalisations every winter. And every year in Switzerland, at least 400 deaths are due to influenza, and their number can exceed a thousand during large-scale epidemics”.

And Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) say that flu” can lead to sometimes serious complications. Throat, sinus and middle ear infections, pneumonia, myocarditis (inflammation of the heart) or neurological complications can be caused by influenza viruses or by so-called secondary bacterial infections”.

In Switzerland, each year influenza leads to 112,000 to 275,000 medical consultations, FOPH said.

But there is also another reason why health authorities recommend this vaccine: to prevent the overload of the health system.

According to Christoph Berger, president of the Federal Commission for Vaccination Issues, “if the Covid-19 and flu viruses circulate at the same time, the health system will be saturated quite quickly, as the number of medical consultations, emergencies, and hospital stays increases”, Berger said.

But as more people get vaccinated against the flu, “we will be able to maintain our health system”, he added.

Who is most at risk for flu complications?

“The risk of severe complications is significantly increased for pregnant women, premature babies, people with certain chronic diseases or conditions, and for elderly persons. In rare cases, such complications can also affect healthy young adults”, FOPH said.

In other words, people over 65, as well as those whose immune systems are weakened due to pre-existing medical conditions, are encouraged to get the shot if their doctor recommends it.

READ MORE: Will Switzerland be able to meet demand for the flu vaccine? 

What about children?

According to FOPH, children are more vulnerable to flu viruses because their immune system is less developed than that of adults. 

While many parent think flu is not a serious disease, during the 2019 / 2020 flu season, babies and toddlers constituted the most affected age group, FOPH said.

And infants can suffer more serious and protracted complications, such as pneumonia.

Vaccine skeptics argue that children should develop their own defenses against viruses.

Berger disagrees. “When you vaccinate children against the flu, they form antibodies against the antigens in the vaccine – and these are the same as those that circulate with the flu”.

Who should NOT get the flu shot?

People with life-threatening allergies to flu vaccine or any ingredient in the vaccine should not be vaccinated.

Such severe allergies are rare but if you believe you have them, speak to your doctor about other possible ways to prevent catching the flu.

Where in Switzerland can you get a vaccine?

Nearly all doctors’ practices give flu shots, as do many pharmacies.

This is a list of all the places, by canton.

But call first to see whether you need an appointment or you can just walk in.

How much does a flu vaccine cost and will it be paid by insurance?

A flu shot costs 30 francs but is paid for by health insurance for people over the age of 65, those suffering from serious chronic illnesses, pregnant women, as well as premature infants.

If you fall into the category of those who have pre-existing medical conditions, ask your doctor if you are eligible for a free shot.

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HEALTH INSURANCE

What isn’t covered by Switzerland’s compulsory health insurance?

Switzerland’s basic health insurance is among the most expensive in the world, but there are certain services it doesn’t pay for. Here are some of the benefits the scheme won’t cover in full.

What isn't covered by Switzerland’s compulsory health insurance?

Basic insurance — KVG in German and LaMal in French and Italian —  is compulsory in Switzerland. It doesn’t come cheap, but it is quite comprehensive and includes coverage for illness, medications, tests, maternity, physical therapy, preventive care, and many other treatments.

It also covers accidents for those who do not have accident insurance through their workplace.

Basically, whatever the doctor orders is covered by KVG / LaMal, at least partially.

READ MORE: Everything you need to know about health insurance in Switzerland

However, there are some treatments the basic insurance won’t pay for.

Experimental treatments

Any experimental treatments or drugs — that is, those not approved by the Swissmedic regulatory agency or the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) will not be covered.

This exclusion is not specifically Swiss; insurance schemes is most countries won’t cover unauthorised medical treatment either.

Dental care

In most cases, services such as teeth cleaning, dental fillings, root canals, tooth extractions, and orthodontic braces, are not included under basic insurance.

The only exceptions, according to the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH), are dental interventions “necessitated by a serious disorder of the masticatory system, or if such treatment is required to support and ensure the success of medical treatment for a severe general disorder (e.g. leukaemia, heart-valve replacement)”.

Most dental treatments are not covered. Photo by Pixabay

Eyeglasses and contact lenses

Compulsory health insurance will contribute up to 180 francs per year towards glasses and contact lenses prescribed by an ophthalmologist for children up to the age of 18.

No such benefit exist for adults. However, “in the case of serious visual impairment or certain illnesses (e.g. disease-related refraction abnormalities, postoperative alterations or corneal disease), compulsory health insurance will, regardless of age, make higher contributions towards medically prescribed spectacle and contact lenses”, FOPH says.

READ MORE: Reader question: Can Swiss health insurance exclude me if I have pre-existing conditions?

Ambulance

Emergency vehicles that transport you to a hospital can be quite expensive — depending on the canton, the costs can range from 900 to 2,000 francs per trip. 

Basic health insurance will contribute a certain amount  to the cost of emergency transportation, but only if it is a medical necessity — a serious accident, an illness, or a life-threatening situation. But if the patient could have travelled by private car or public transport, basic health insurance policies will pay nothing.

Insurance will cover some of the cost of ambulance transport only in emergency. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Private hospital room

While the cost of your hospitalisation will be fully covered, the basic insurance does not pay for a private room.

You will be accommodated in a room with other patients.

Depending on a medical facility — whether it’s a small hospital or a large, university medical centre, you could end up with just one other person or possibly four or five, the latter being common in teaching hospitals.

If you insist on a private accommodation, you will have to pay for it out of your own pocket.

Reader question: Can Swiss health insurance exclude me if I have pre-existing conditions?

Vaccines

Immunisations outlined by FOPH  will be paid for by insurance, as will the Covid vaccine.

Not covered, however, are travel-related vaccinations or preventive measures, such as against yellow fever or malaria.

Treatment abroad

Outside Switzerland, only emergency care is covered  — double the amount that the same treatment would cost in Switzerland.

Usually, basic health insurance will not cover transportation costs back to Switzerland, except in case of emergency, when it will cover 50 percent of the total cost of transportation to the nearest hospital abroad — but no more than 500 francs per year. 

If you only have a basic insurance policy and travel abroad often, especially to the United States, you should take out a travel insurance that will cover you for illness and accidents in foreign countries above and beyond what your Swiss carrier will pay.

And if you want to upgrade your treatment options, consider taking out a supplemental insurance or, if you can afford it, private one.

READ MORE: Should you buy supplemental health insurance in Switzerland?

You can find out more about what KVG / LaMal will and will not cover here.

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