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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UPDATE: What are Switzerland’s rules for cannabis consumption?

Switzerland has a complicated set of rules for both medical and recreational cannabis consumption. Here's what you need to know.

UPDATE: What are Switzerland's rules for cannabis consumption?

Long prohibited and seen as a gateway drug with potentially dangerous impacts, countries across the globe have begun legalising cannabis in recent years. 

While the legalisation for medical use has been widespread, there have also been successful legalisation campaigns in several countries. 

The situation in Switzerland is also in flux and has been complicated by a range of recent changes.

Whether referred to as cannabis, marijuana or hemp, Switzerland’s Narcotics Act qualifies it as “a psychoactive substance”, with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) being its most intoxicating ingredient.

The law specifies that “only THC is controlled under the Narcotics Act. Other active substances like cannabidiol (CBD) are not subject to the Narcotics Act as they do not have comparable psychoactive effects”.

Here’s what you need to know. 

Switzerland has legalised medical marijuana 

As of August 1st, the use of cannabis for medical purposes will be allowed in Switzerland

Patients who are medically prescribed the drug will no longer need to seek exceptional permission from the health ministry, as was the case prior to August 1st. 

Demand for cannabis-based treatments has risen sharply, with the health ministry issuing 3,000 exceptional authorisations in 2019.

The government “intends to facilitate access to cannabis for medical use for patients” and was therefore lifting the ban on its use for that purpose, it said in a statement.

The previous procedure involved “tedious administrative procedures”, said the ministry. “Sick people must be able to access these medicines without excessive bureaucracy.”

As of August 1st, “the decision as to whether a cannabis medicinal product is to be used therapeutically will be made by the doctor together with the patient” the government wrote

The sale and consumption of cannabis for non-medical purposes will remain prohibited.

READ MORE: Switzerland to lift ban on medical use cannabis

The new regulations could benefit thousands of people suffering from severe chronic pain, it added, including those with cancer and multiple sclerosis.

READ ALSO: Why Basel is about to become Switzerland’s marijuana capital

The law change will also mean that the cultivation, processing, manufacture and trade of cannabis for medical use will be subject to the Swissmedic regulatory authority, just as with other narcotics for medical use such as cocaine, methadone and morphine.

Legality of recreational cannabis is determined by the THC

THC of at least 1 percent is generally prohibited in Switzerland and use of products with this (or higher) content may be punishable by a 100-franc fine.

Of course, if someone is determined to smoke it, 100 francs may not be much a deterrent — but that’s a subject for another article.

“By contrast, possession of up to 10g of cannabis for personal use is not considered a criminal offence”, the law states, as long as it is not used by or sold to minors.

Italy's constitutional court has blocked the latest efforts to legalise cannabis.

Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP.

And, as with nearly everything else in decentralised Switzerland, “there are still considerable differences between cantons regarding implementation of the fixed penalty procedure”.

However, “cannabis flowers intended for smoking with a high proportion of cannabidiol (CBD) and less than 1 percent THC can be sold and purchased legally”, according to the legislation. 

That’s because, unlike the THC, cannabidiol “does not have a psychoactive effect”.

In other words, low-content THC and CBD will not give the “high” that recreational users seek.

When will Switzerland legalise recreational cannabis?

Currently, small amounts of recreational cannabis are tolerated in Switzerland.

“The decisive factor for classification as a banned drug is how much THC is contained in a cannabis product. If the THC content exceeds one per cent, the product is prohibited. Hashish is prohibited regardless of its THC content.”

As noted by the Swiss government, “If you are caught in possession of a small amount of cannabis (no more than 10 grams) for your own consumption, you will not be fined. In addition, if you supply (but do not sell) up to 10 grams to an adult, e.g. when sharing joints, you will not be fined.”

“If you are caught using cannabis, you may be given a fixed penalty fine of 100 francs.”

In June 2020, the National Council approved a plan to start cannabis trials for recreational use.

The experiments are to be carried out in Switzerland’s larger cities. Basel, Bern, Biel, Geneva and Zurich have all expressed interest in conducting the trials. 

The study seeks to find out how the market for cannabis works – and how to combat the black market. The social effects of legalisation will also be examined. 

At this point, no decisions have been made. However, Swiss authorities have set certain conditions in case recreational use is approved.

The National Council said if cannabis were to be legalised, it must be locally grown in Switzerland – and it must be organic. 

Health Minister Alain Berset noted that legalisation should benefit Swiss farmers even though “very few producers have experience in this area”.

READ MORE: Switzerland backs recreational cannabis trials – with one condition

Can you grow your own cannabis?

In truth, a number of people cultivate marijuana plants on their balconies or in their (secluded) gardens for their own personal use.

As it turns out, the law allows it, as long as it is a variety of the plant that does not have a narcotic effect — that is, the THC content must be less than 1 percent. 

By the same token, cannabis-based products with THC content of below 1 percent can be brought into Switzerland from abroad.

However, the import rules differ depending on the type of product  it is — flowers, seeds, extracts, oils, or other goods.

How much cannabis is consumed in Switzerland each year?

Precise numbers are hard to come by, but according to an article in Le Temps, which based its information on a medical study, about 100 tonnes are consumed in the country annually.

Cannabis remains the largest market in terms of volume: it represents 85 percent of drugs consumed in Switzerland, netting between 340, 000 and 500,000 francs per year.

READ MORE: Drugs and alcohol: Just how much do the Swiss consume?